The Natural History Of Religion

Amongst the various atheist texts attacking religion published recently, several have tried to undermine religion by attempting to provide a scientific, materialist account for its origin. Thus we have Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust and Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, along with similar works by Pascal Boyer amongst others. The other week in the online comments section of the British liberal newspaper, the Guardian, Sue Blackmore, a psychology lecturer at the University of the West of England, was declaring that once it was realised how religion had evolved, people would be able to break free of it. The assumption behind these works is that religion has somehow evolved to satisfy psychological and sociological needs within humans through entirely materialistic processes, without any type of intervention or contact with any gods or other transcendent or supernatural beings. The assumption here is that once people realise that religion and god is merely the product of such impersonal, materialistic evolutionary, sociological and psychological forces, they’ll be able to see that it’s all false and they’ll become atheist rationalists, like the books’ authors.

Similar atheistic, rationalist attacks on the transcendent basis of religion have been made for centuries, since before ancient Rome so there’s nothing particularly new about these arguments. All of them are open to criticism on historical, anthropological and philosophical grounds. The evolutionary accounts of the origin of religion are actually particularly vulnerable. Evolutionary psychology is by no means firmly established, and many psychologists and philosophers are extremely sceptical about attempts to trace the origin of consciousness from the minds of contemporary humans. Indeed, there are aspects of the human psychology, such as aesthetics, which actually resist reduction to evolutionary origins. A transcendent realm of beauty and value, which for theists will include God, does indeed exist. And even if religion can be shown to have evolved, this may merely be the actualisation of the human awareness of the Almighty, rather than a construction of a mental idol. Finally, evolutionary approaches to the origin of religion also present problems for the atheist. For a trait to have arisen, it must confer some benefit on the organism. Furthermore, until very recently all human societies were theist or religious. Thus rather than being the default position of humanity, atheism is the sociological and psychological anomaly that needs to be explained and which, if the conventional logic of evolution is followed, confers no benefit to the organism.

Atheist Explanations of Religion in Euhemerus and Philo of Byblos

One of the earliest rationalist attempts to explain the origins of religion was that of Euhemerus, writing c. 320 BC, who believed that the Greek myths were merely legendary accounts of the lives of real people. This view strongly influenced the ancient Phoenician writer, Philo of Byblos. In his Cosmogony, Primitive History and History of the Uranides Philo presented the Phoenician gods as a race of mortals, albeit with superhuman powers, who arose from natural forces to discover the great inventions of civilisations. In his Cosmogony, the first principle was a troubled and windy air or dark chaos, which lasted for many centuries. From this troubled and windy air came the first principle of creation, Desire, and Mot. Far from being the god of death and drought of Canaanite religion, according to Philo, ‘some say that this was slime and others a rotting of aquatic composition. From it came all the germs of all created things and it was the origin of everything’. 1 From this slime appeared plants, animals and eventually the humans who became worshipped in their turn as gods. These first people ‘deified the products of the earth, considered them to be gods and worshipped them, ‘for from the earth they drew their substance, they and those who followed them and all those who had been before them; and they made libations and ritual aspersions’’. 2 Philo’s History of the Uranides in particular ‘treats the gods as ordinary mortals who take part in a series of adventures from which result the creation of royalty, the foundation of the first town, the invention of the plough and the cultivation of wheat, the institution of votive sacrifices and of human sacrifices, the construction of temples, the transition from free love to polygamy and finally monogamy.’3 Philo was writing at the end of the 1st century AD, so 1,700 years before Darwin there was an attempt to provide a rationalist account of the origin of religion and humanity through something like naturalistic evolution.

Hume’s Natural History of Religion

With the rise of modern Scepticism in the 17th and 18th centuries, the attempt to present a rationalist account of the origin of religion was revived, and was given its most influential treatment in David Hume’s The Natural History of Religion. Attacking the Christian doctrine that humanity had originally known only the one God, before falling into sin and idolatry, Hume created the modern scheme of the evolution of religion whereby humanity had originally been polytheists, rather than monotheists, and had gradually progressed to monotheism. ‘As far as writing or history reaches, mankind, in ancient times, appear universally to have been polytheists. Shall we assert, that, in more ancient times, before the knowledge of letters, or the discovery of any art or science, men entertained the principles of pure theism? That is, while they were ignorant and barbarous, they discovered truth: But fell into error, as soon as they acquired learning and politeness.’ 4

Humanity, according to Hume, had to come by its conception of God through a process by which primitive ideas of God were first gained from observation of the world around them, before being criticised and rejected as humanity moved on towards a more noble conception of the Lord. ‘It seems certain, that, according to the natural progress of human thought, the ignorant multitude must first entertain some grovelling and familiar notion of superior powers, before they stretch their conception to that perfect Being who bestowed order on the whole frame of nature. We may as reasonably imagine, that men inhabited palaces before huts and cottages, or studied geometry before agriculture; as assert that the Deity appeared to them a pure spirit, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, before he was apprehended to be a powerful, though limited being, with human passions and appetites, limbs and organs. The mind rises gradually, from inferior to superior: By abstracting from what is imperfect, it forms an idea of perfection: And slowly distinguishing the nobler parts of its own frame from the grower, it learns to transfer only the former, much elevated and refine, to its divinity. Nothing could disturb this natural process of thought, but some obvious and invicible argument, which might immediately lead the mind into the principles of theism, and make it overleap, at one bound, the vast interval which is interposed between the human and the divine nature. But though I allow, that the order and frame of the universe, when accurately examined, affords such an argument, yet I can never think, that this consideration could have an influence on mankind, when they formed their first rude notions of religion.’ 5

19th Century Views of the Evolution of Religion

This idea of an evolution in religious thought through which humanity progressed from the deification of natural forces to the idea of a universal God powerfully affected Enlightenment and 19th century philosophical and anthropological accounts of the origin of religion. The German philosopher Hegel, for example, considered that the original religion was a Naturreligion of magic and fetishism, in which no duality was perceived between nature and spirit. The dialectical process in human culture of thesis-antithesis-synthesis separated ‘spirit’ from the material world, and then made spirit a ‘subject’ – an independent, personal deity, who worship contrasted with the lack of recognition given to the finite, created world. This, however, had been replaced by the ultimate stage in which God and the material world had been reconciled. For Hegel, this was in the conception of a transcendent yet immanent God in Christian dogma. 6

Auguste Comte, the founder of Positivism, took this rationalist view even further. Totally rejecting the reality of God in favour of religion of humanity, Comte viewed religion as entirely the projection of human characteristics on to a supposedly supernatural being. Not having a suitable rational explanation for the world and its natural phenomena, primitive humanity had attempted to explain them with the imaginative invention of a variety of gods, demons and ghosts. Humanity had first been animists, believing that gods existed within various natural forces, before moving to polytheism and finally to monotheism. This monotheism would be superceded in its turn by science. 7 Herbert Spencer, on the other hand, in his evolutionary account of the origin of religion, considered that primitive humanity was ‘beyond rational conjecture’, and so turned to dreams to provide a rational explanation for the natural world. The self they experienced in their dreams convinced them of the immortality of the soul, and that a similar self inhabited animals, plants and material objects. Later, these ancestral ghosts became worshipped as gods. 8 Edward Burnett Tylor, who became Oxford’s first professor of anthropology in 1896, believed that the origin of belief in the soul, and other spiritual beings, was an attempt to explain life’s crises like death, dreams, illness and disease by primitive humanity. 9 Finally, James George Frazer, drew on Comte to produce his own tripartite scheme of human intellectual progress. For Frazer, the final stage of human intellectual development was science, which naturally superceded religion. However, the origin of religion was not animism, but magic. Magic was originally an attempt to manipulate nature without respect to any deity. However, when primitive humanity realised that it could not control the world through magic, it attempted to explain this lack of success through the belief that this was because there were beings like humans, but far stronger, who really controlled the universe, and which must be propitiated. This resulted in an animistic conception of the universe, which finally yielded to monotheism. Magic was a primitive attempt at science, and religion was opposed to both science and religion. 10

H.G. Wells’ Views on the Evolution of Religion

H.G. Wells also attempted to provide a rationalist account of the origin of religion. He viewed primitive humanity as child-like. ‘Primitive man probably thought very much as a child thinks, that is to say, in a series of imaginative pictures. He conjured up images or images presented themselves to his mind, and he acted in accordance with the emotions they aroused.’ 11 These child-like first people created religion from their dreams and the animist conception of the world seen in children. These inspired stories, which were then established as legends as they were recounted by women. ‘The dreams, imaginations and fears of a child are far more vivid and real than those of a modern adult, and primitive man was always something of a child. He was nearer to the animals also, and he could suppose them to have motives and reactions like his own. He could imagine animal helpers, animal enemies, animal gods. One needs to have been an imaginative child oneself to realise again how important, significant, portentous or friendly strangely shaped rocks, lumps of wood, exceptional trees or the like may have appeared to the men of the Old Stone Age, and how dream and fancy would create stories and legends about such things that would become credible as they were told. Some of these stories would be good enough to remember and tell again. The women would tell them to the children and so establish a tradition. To this day most imaginative children invent long stories in which some favourite doll or animal or some fantastic semi-human being figures as the hero, and primitive man probably did the same-with a much stronger disposition to believe his hero real.’ 12

Wells also seems to have been strongly influenced by Freud’s theory that religion was based upon the respect for the father in the ur-human community, elaborated by their appearance in dreams after their death. ‘Some speculative writers would have us believe that respect and fear of the Old Man and the emotional reaction of the primitive savage to older protective women, exaggerated in dreams and enriched by fanciful mental play, formed a large part in the beginnings of primitive religion and in the conception of gods and goddesses. Associated with this respect for powerful or helpful personalities was a dread and exaltation of such personages after their deaths, due to their reappearance in dreams. It was easy to believe they were not truly dead but only fantastically transferred to a remoteness of greater power.’ 13 Following Frazer, he also found the origin of religion in fetishism, in a confused account of cause and effect used by primitive humans to control their environment: ‘There is no sort of savage so low as not have a kind of science of cause and effect. But primitive man was not very critical in his associations of cause with effect; he very easily connected an effect with something quite alien to its cause. “You do so and so,” he said, “ and so and so happens.” You give a child a certain berry and it dies. You eat the heart of a valiant enemy and you become strong. There we have to bits of cause and effect association, one true, one false. We call the system of cause and effect in the mind of a savage, Fetich; but Fetich is simply savage science. It differs from modern science in that it is totally unsystematic and uncritical and so more frequently wrong.’ 14 The result of this was that, for Wells, magic and fetishism was the origin of religion, and the tribal magicians the origin of later priesthood. ‘The expert in Fetich, the Medicine man, was the first priest. He exhorted, he interpreted dreams, he warned, he performed the complicated hocus pocus that brought luck or averted calamity. Primitive religion was not so much what we now call religion as practice and observance, and the early priest dictated what was indeed an arbitrary primitive practical science.’ 15

Julian Jaynes and the Bicameral Mind

The development of neurology and the scepticism of some of those in the hard sciences for the theory and methodology of psychoanalysis resulted in attempts to provide a neurological, rather than psychological explanation for the rise of religion in the formation of modern human consciousness. In the 1980s the neurologist Julian Jaynes suggested in his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, that originally the two hemispheres of the human brain had not been fully integrated. Humanity experienced the promptings of the brain’s left hemisphere, which controlled intuition and creativity, as the voices of gods and ancestors. As the capacity to receive such sudden insights and mystical states became increasingly rare as humans integrated the two halves of their brains, those who were more easily able to achieve these states became venerated as shamans. Shamanism was the origin of later religion, whose priests mechanically followed the techniques and teachings of the ecstatic founders of their religion. Jaynes’ theory has been widely criticised and rejected by most, if not all, neurologists, though Daniel C. Dennett attempted to defend it in the essay ‘Julian Jaynes’s Software Archaeology’.16

Rationalist Critiques of Paganism in the Apocrypha

Now Judaism and Christianity have certainly not been opposed to finding rational explanations for certain types of religious phenomena. The ancient Hebrews believed that idolatry had arisen because humanity, separated from the true knowledge of God by the Fall, had mistaken natural phenomena for gods. The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha states this clearly ‘Surely vain are all men by nature, who are ignorant of God, and could not out of the good things that are seen know him that is: neither by considering the works did they acknowledge the workmaster; But deemed either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the violent water, or the lights of heaven, to the gods which govern the world.’ 17 Amongst deified natural phenomena, humans also created false gods from images made of their own leaders by subjects eager to please them and demonstrate their loyalty, and the grief-stricken fathers of dead children. ‘For a father afflicted with untimely mourning, when he hath made an image of his child soon taken away, now honoured him as a god, which was then a dead man, and delivered to those that were under him ceremonies and sacrifices. Thus in process of time an ungodly custom grown strong was kept as a law, and graven images were worshipped by the commandment of kings. Whom men could not honour in presence, because they dwelt far off, they took the counterfeit of his visage from far, and made an express image of a king whom they honoured, to the end that by this their forwardness they might flatter him that was absent, as if he were present. Also the singular diligence of the artificer did help to set forward the ignorant to more superstition. For he, peradventure willing to please one in authority, forced all his skill to make the resemblance of the best fashion. And the multitude, allured by the grace of the work, took him now for a god, which a little before was but honoured as a man. And this was an occasion to deceive the world; for men, serving either calamity or tyranny, did ascribe unto stones and stocks the incommunicable name.’ 18

The Wisdom of Solomon’s description of paternal mourning as the origin of one form of idolatry could be an attempt to account for the cult of the dead found in ancient Syria and Palestine. The Ras Shamra texts refer to ‘offerings at the aperture of the divine ancestor’, which may refer to apertures such as the pipes leading into bottomless jars so that libations could be poured into them. The dead were venerated in ancient Syria as bestowers of fertility who communicated supernatural revelations to their descendents. An inscription of King Tabnith of Sidon, dating from the 5th century BC, possibly refers to them as ‘divine’. Canaanite kings were particularly concerned to have their subjects continue to venerate their spirits after death so that they could enjoy companionship with their gods in the afterlife. In an inscription dated to c. 750 BC, the Aramaean king Panammu requests his descendents to invoke him when sacrificing to Baal, so that ‘his soul may eat and drink with Baal’. It has been suggested that the ban on offering a portion of the sacrifice to the dead in Deuteronomy 26:14 was a prohibition on giving these offerings to the dead.19 If that is the case, then the account of the rise of idolatry from mistaken grief given by the Wisdom of Solomon was a further attack on the custom by providing a rational account of its origin in addition to the ban imposed by Scripture.

Similarly, the statements in the Wisdom of Solomon that the images of kings were also responsible for their promotion into gods may also be a critique of the claims to divinity made by some of the kings in the ancient Near East. The Egyptian pharaoh, for example, was considered to be the son of Ra, the Sun god. 20 These kings partly enforced their authority through the production of images. When the Roman Empire later arose, the emperor was similarly considered a god. There was an official cult of the emperor’s numen, his spiritual principle, served by priests who made sacrifices before his image. It has been suggested that this identification of the ruler with his image is behind the Biblical statement in Genesis that men and women are formed in the image of God. Rulers expressed their authority through their graven image. However, God’s authority is shown in his image, men and women, who in their position, nature and functions are images and deputies of the Almighty on Earth. 21 If this is the case, then Genesis represents a radical attack on the institution of divine kingship and a democratisation of the notion of a divine element in humanity. In ancient Egypt the king, as a god, was kept rigorously separate from ordinary mortals. Yet by being made in the image of God, the Bible sees ordinary men and women as participating in the divine. The statement by the Wisdom of Solomon that the construction of idols had its origin in the worship of kings by their subjects provides a further, rational attack on the institution of pagan divine monarchy, supplementing the implications in Genesis.

This, however, is the difference between the attempt by the writers of the Apocrypha to provide a rationalist critique of pagan religion, and the attempts of the atheists to explain it away. The Wisdom of Solomon does not seek to undermine religion, or deny the existence of God. Rather it attempts to provide a rational explanation for wrongful religion, the creation of idols and false gods by humanity as a substitute for the true religion of the one God. Atheism took this critique of idolatry, and applied it to all religion. Every god, including the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, incarnated in Jesus Christ, was declared to be a human invention.

Criticisms of Theories of the Evolution of Religion

This attempt to explain away and dismiss religion as a whole is radically flawed. It depends deeply on prior materialist assumptions and from the projection into the past of behaviour observed in the present. And frequently, as in the description of the mind of ancient man as being child-like, was based on explicitly racist assumptions, which have been rejected by modern scholars. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, specifically attacked the Freudian assumption that children’s minds somehow recapitulated that of ancient man, and criticised those who sought to defend Freud by saying that exiled sons had not really killed their father in the remote, ur-human past. 22 Freud’s theory that religion had its roots in neurotic and obsessive behaviour generated by the trauma of violent events in the history of early humanity has now been discredited. It seems to me that the rise of recent books attempting to explain religion away are partly a response to the failure of one particularly influential atheist critique of religion. One atheist explanation of religion has been found false, so more must be promoted in case the atheist critique of religion as a whole be shown to be wrong.

Neurological accounts of the origin of religion, like Julian Jaynes, are similarly problematic. No physical tissue from early humans has so far survived, and discussions of the consciousness of early humanity depend strongly on the analysis of their material culture – the artefacts they left behind – and their comparison with similar behaviour by hunter-gatherer cultures today. Thus Palaeolithic rock art is considered by many archaeologists to be the product of shamanic religious experiences through analogy with similar rock art produced by similar cultures, like the San people of South Africa, which have been recorded by anthropologists. While the archaeologists and anthropologists who have suggested this have presented a convincing case, nevertheless the neurology that produced and produces such artwork is that of modern humans. Human cognitive evolution therefore remains very much a contested area. Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind has been severely criticised and rejected because of its highly conjectural nature, and of the severe mental disabilities a society composed of people who possessed such a consciousness would suffer. A friend of mine, a psychiatric nurse, pointed out to me that the people Jaynes suggests in his book had such a sharply differentiated mind would have been acute schizophrenics. In his opinion such people would have found it extremely difficult to cope with normal life, let alone produce the glories of art found in the Palaeolithic past.

Similarly, attempts to trace a linear development from some earlier stage of religion – fetishism, animism, Shamanism or magic have also been found to be extremely problematic because of the existence of these forms of religion amongst much higher conceptions of God. Frazer’s view of magic has been thoroughly rejected by anthropologists. The Anglo-Polish anthropologist, Boleslaw Malinowski, who was an admirer of Frazer, stated that Frazer’s theory of magic was untenable. Primitive humanity was well aware of the scientific laws of natural process. They knew the laws of cause and effect, and were aware of the difference between their subjective associations and external, objective reality. Frazer, on the other hand, had assumed that they did not. 23 Thus Frazer’s account of the origin of religion from magic is inaccurate, and rejected.

Tylor’s views on the origin of religion have also been rejected. Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, commenting on Tylor’s belief that religion arose from wrong ideas about natural phenomena and dreams and trances, asked why it was that belief in the soul should have lasted for millennia and continued to be held by millions of civilised people today. 24 Tylor’s own disciple, Andrew Lang, noted that alongside their animistic and totemistic beliefs, primitive people often had a far higher conception of God than many races far more advanced in civilisation. In his The Making of Religion of 1898, Lang stated ‘that the savage theory of the soul may be based, at least in part, on experiences which cannot, at present, be made to fit into any purely materialistic system of the universe.’ There was also ‘evidence tending to prove that the idea of God, in its earliest shape, need not logically be deduced from the idea of spirit, however that idea itself may have been attained or evolved. The conception of God, then, need not be evolved out of reflections on dreams and ‘ghosts’.’ 25 This statement that the conception of God could not have evolved from ghosts or spirits influenced a number of Christian scholars, including the missionary, Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt, who found evidence of monotheism amongst the peoples considered most archaic, Aboriginal Tasmanians and Andaman Islanders. 26 Scholars of traditional Siberian religion, such as Dr. Ronald Hutton, have also pointed out the ambiguous nature of the evidence for Palaeolithic Shamanism. The dancing figures with animal heads found in cave paintings in southern France, sometimes considered to be pictures of shamans, could also represent gods, spirits or hunters disguised in animal skins to confuse their prey. They are never shown in trance or dancing before an audience. 27 Furthermore, even if these are shamans, this does not mean that shamanism itself is a survival from the Palaeolithic. ‘The problem is that nobody has any way of determining whether these are cases of survival from a common Palaeolithic heritage or of parallel evolution of customs by peoples with roughly similar social organisations in roughly similar environments.’ 28 If that is the case, then Shamanism could be a form of religion into which people could descend, rather than from which they progress, following the general Positivist evolutionary schema.

The Existence of Monotheist Elements in Polytheism

Supporters of the idea of an original monotheism, from which early humanity descended in polytheism, such as Fr. Schmidt, pointed to the fact that many polytheistic religions nevertheless had a conception of a supreme god close to the Judaeo-Christian conception of God. The conception of the god Kwoth in Nuer religion, considered as a benevolent father, who is particularly associated with the sky, but not identical with it, immaterial and omnipresent, is similar in many ways to the God of the Bible. 29 The Indians of the American Great Plains similarly believed in an all-powerful and invisible supreme being, the Great Spirit, Master of Life, our Father the Sky or the Great Mystery, who was not represented as possessing a definite form, but through symbols, such as that for dawn. 30 Similarly the Pericu Indians of California also believed in a supreme deity, Niparaya, who created heaven and earth and gives food to all creatures. Although he possesses a wife, by whom he had children, Niparaya was a spirit, invisible and without a body. 31 Thus in the religions and mythologies of peoples across the world there was an element of monotheism, even if this was not fully realised. This makes the idea of a straightforward evolution from polytheism to monotheism problematic.

Criticism of Hume’s Assumptions about the Evolution of Religion

In fact Hume’s argument for the evolution of religion from polytheism to monotheism is based on primarily on his belief that monotheism itself is such a lofty doctrine that no people who heard it and were convinced of it could fall away into polytheism. However, this is to ignore the witness of the Bible. Even after the establishment of the Mosaic Law and covenant with the Lord, Israel and its kings repeatedly fell into apostasy and the worship of the Canaanite gods. Hume even contradicts himself on this point. In the Natural History of Religion he states that simple observation of the universe presented convincing evidence that there was only one God. However, part of the argument against natural theology in his Dialogues is that the unity and order of the universe is not necessarily evidence that it was created by only one God. He also devotes part of the Natural History of Religion to arguing that ancient paganism was more tolerant than monotheists. ‘The intolerance of almost all religions, which have maintained the unity of God, is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists. The implacable narrow spirit of the Jews is well known. Mahometanism set out with still more bloody principles; and even to this day, deals out damnation, though not fire and faggot, to all other sects. And if, among Christians, the English and Dutch have embraced the principles of toleration, this singularity has proceeded from the steady resolution of the civil magistrate, in opposition to the continued efforts of priests and bigots.’ 32 This argument, that paganism is naturally more tolerant than monotheism, has been one of the major motives in the contemporary pagan revival. Thus while Hume was an agnostic, rather than pagan or atheist, he himself provides arguments against monotheism as a doctrine which is so intellectually convincing, that no rejection of it is possible once it has been established.

Religion as Encounter with a Transcendent ‘Thou’

Hume, Tylor and Frazer were also mistaken about the essential nature of religion. They felt it was to provide some kind of explanation for the existence of world and its phenomena, or else to provide solutions to the problems from which humanity suffers, like death, disease, famine and so on. This is undoubtedly part of the function of religion, but it is not the whole or the central, definitive feature of religious experience. For those scholars who follow the view of the great German Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, the essential feature of religion is a relationship between ‘I’ and ‘Thou’. The world as experienced by the ‘I’ of the religious believer isn’t an object, but a ‘Thou’ – a living personality to which they must respond. This ‘Thou’ can be experienced in separate phenomena, and so be conceptualised in different, even contradictory forms. As simple explanations, these competing forms clearly contradict each other, but as expressions of a controlling ‘Thou’ behind them, they may find an equal place in the pantheon. ‘We see, again, that the ancients’ conception of phenomenon differed according to their approach to it. Modern scholars have reproached the Egyptians for their apparent inconsistencies and have doubted their ability to think clearly. Such an attitude is sheer presumption. Once one recognizes the processes of ancient thought, their justification is apparent. After all, religious values are not reducible to rationalistic formulas. Natural phenomena, whether or not they were personified and became gods, confronted ancient man with a living presence, a significant ‘Thou’, which, again, exceeded the scope of conceptual definition. In such cases our flexible thought and language clearly modify certain concepts so thoroughly as to make them suitable to carry our burdens of expression and significance. The mythopoeic mind, tending toward the concrete, expressed the irrational, not in our manner, but by admitting the validity of several avenues of approach at one and the same time. The Babylonians, for instance, worshipped the generative force in nature in several forms: its manifestation in the beneficial rains and thunderstorms was visualised as a lion-headed bird. Seen in the fertility of the earth, it became a snake. Yet in statues, prayers, and cult acts it was represented as a god in human shape…We should not doubt that mythopoeic thought fully recognizes the unity of each phenomenon which it conceives under so many different guises; the many-sidedness of its images serves to do justice to the complexity of the phenomenon.’ 33

Materialism Assumed but not Proved by Atheist Critiques of Religion

A more profound failing of these attempts to explain away religion is their basis in materialism. Hume assumes that humans must have moved from polytheism to monotheism based on rational analysis of the phenomenon around them, and not by revelation. He does not, however, provide any arguments against revelation. He just assumes it does not exist. Yet if revelation does exist, and God clearly spoke to the ancient Hebrews saying ‘You shall have no other gods before me’, then clearly his entire scheme of the evolution of religion is thrown into serious doubt, if not entirely contradicted.

Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, in their analysis of religion, treat is an entirely sociological phenomenon. It exists merely to satisfy sociological needs – for moral laws, a coherent scheme for appropriate conduct and behaviour creating a moral community. In this view, people continue to believe in supernatural beings and practice their religions because it brings them this-worldly benefits, like success in hunting, harvests or work, a sense of community with their fellows and so on. Now undoubtedly it is the case that people practice their religion in expectation that they will receive some material benefits. The Mosaic Law creates the conditions through which one may be included in the congregation of Israel, a member of Israel as a religious community. Correct observance of the Law brings the promise of a long and successful life. The commandment to ‘honour thy father and mother’ has the condition ‘that thou may live long in the land that I, the Lord, shall give you.’ Yet religion is not reducible merely to a set of sociological principles. While social anthropologists like A. Radcliffe-Brown attempted to reduce society to general principles, Evans-Pritchard instead adopted a hermeneutic approach, attempting to understand religion through its ideas, metaphors, and the meaning of its rituals, thus understanding it as an independent system in its own right. 34

Cognitivist Approaches to Religion

Other scholars have turned from a sociological perspective towards a Cognitivist approach to analysing religion. This draws heavily on evolutionary psychology to state that humans have produced representations of the gods because humans evolved to do so. ‘Evolutionary science postulates no change in the human brain and mind which would have rendered them markedly different now from what they were and how they functioned in classical antiquity. Quite the contrary, we may safely assume that we form our representations of supernatural beings, to all intents and purposes, just as the ancients did. Any adaptive changes, so cognitive theory argues, took place in earlier and far longer epochs as our remote ancestors passed through the hunter-gatherer phase, and they took place in response to the exigencies of the hunter-gatherers’ environment. They occurred because they gave those hunter-gatherers with these adaptations a competitive and reproductive edge over those without.’ 35 Thus humans believe in gods not because they belong to a particular culture, but simply because this is part of human evolutionary nature. ‘We form representations of supernatural beings not by virtue of membership in societies and cultures but by virtue of membership in the species Homo Sapiens. Our particular societies and cultures shape and standardise our representations, conforming them to the various explicit tradition current and licensed in our various times and places. But it is we who construct the gods, not ‘society’, not ‘culture’; and ‘we’ means the human mind functioning in the human brain.’ 36

Despite the radical reductionism of the Cognitivist approach to religion, this clearly presents problems for the atheist. Firstly, it religion has evolved to confer a benefit on the species, then it is not the negative force which atheism views it. Indeed, it may be atheism that is, in evolutionary terms, a negative phenomenon. Furthermore it corroborates the statement by Calvin that people naturally have a ‘sensus divinitatis’ or sense for the divine.

Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology

Also, socio-biology and evolutionary psychology themselves are highly conjectural approaches to human psychology. Despite claims that these approaches will provide satisfying accounts of human behaviour, philosophers have objected that they are radically incomplete. Human self-consciousness means that humans are rational agents in a way other parts of the universe are not, and make decisions and act in ways that do not conform to Darwinian principles. Indeed some philosophers have argued that evolutionary psychology is actually pre-scientific in the way it presents man as part of the cosmos in a manner similar to the conception of humanity as the microcosm – the universe in miniature – in ancient Greek philosophy. ‘Far-fetched as Socrates as microcosm might seem today, those who would wish to explain human behaviour without reference to mind, and who would disparage explanations of actions in terms of doing what is for the best as folk psychology, are making an analogous move in reverse rather than treating the macrocosm by analogy with the microcosm, they are treating the microcosm as analogy with the macrocosm. They are treating the microcosm (man) as it if were just part of the macrocosm, and guided and animated by the same principles. But this is surely misguided. Whatever we decide about or ultimate destination and origin, it remains the case that we, as human beings and as self-conscious agents, can question our standing in the world in a way no other part of nature can. This, indeed, is part of what ‘acting for the best’ comprises: raising questions about our relationship to the rest of nature and to each other. The normativity, the search for truth for its own sake, which this involves, engages us in types of considerations which are not found in the scientific descriptions and explanations, whether those of physics or of biology.’ 37

Rudolf Otto on the Evolution of Religion

In fact the inadequacy of evolutionary theory for providing a complete account of the origin of religion, or of explaining it away, was discussed nearly a century ago by the great German religious scholar, Rudolf Otto, in his 1917 The Idea of the Holy. Evolutionary theory could only offer partial or inadequate solutions, as it could not study early hominids, like Pithecanthropus, directly, but only make inferences about them through modern human behaviour, a process that was nevertheless flawed because of the highly conjectural nature of such similarities. Nor could it explain the soul and the emergence of life from dead matter. Rather, there existed in humanity a predisposition to religious experience that was activated and developed through evolution.

‘The justification of the ‘evolutionist’ theory of to-day stands or falls with its claim to ‘explain’ the phenomenon of religion. That is in truth the real task of the psychology of religion. But in order to explain we must have the data from which an explanation may be forthcoming; out of nothing nothing can be explained. Nature can only be explained by an investigation into the ultimate fundamental forces of nature and their laws; it is meaningless to propose to go farther and explain these laws themselves, for in terms of what are they to be explained? But in the domain of spirit the corresponding principle from which an explanation is derived is just the spirit itself, the reasonable spirit of man, with its predispositions, capacities, and its own inherent laws. This has to be presupposed: it cannot itself by explained. None can say how mind or spirit ‘is made’ – though this is in effect just what the theory of epigenesis is fain to attempt. The history of humanity begins with man, and we have to presuppose man, to take him for granted as he is, in order that from him we may understand his history. That is, we must presuppose man as a being analogous to ourselves in natural propensities and capacities. It is a hopeless business to seek to lower ourselves into the mental life of a pithecanthropus erectus; and, even if it were not, we should still need to start from man as he is, since we can only interpret the psychical and emotional life of animals regressively by clumsy analogies drawn from the developed human mind. To try, on the other hand, to understand and deduce the human from the sub-human or brute mind is to try to fit the lock to the key instead of vice versa; it is to seek to illuminate light by darkness. In the first appearance of conscious life on dead unconscious matter we have a simple, irreducible, inexplicable datum. But that which here appears is already a manifold of qualities, and we can only interpretit as a seed of potentiality, out of which issue continually maturer powers and capacities, as the organization of the body increases in stability and complexity. And the only way we can throw any light upon the whole region of sub-human psychical life is by interpreting it once again as a sort of predisposition’ at a second remove, i.e. a predisposition to form the predispositions or faculties of the actual developed mind, and standing in relation to this as an embryo to the full grown organism.’ 38 For Otto, the experience of the numinous came from the deepest part of the human soul. It was not created by sense experience, but was merely stimulated and actualised by it. ‘the numinous is of the latter kind. It issues from the deepest foundation of cognitive apprehension that the soul possesses, and, though it of course comes into being in and amid the sensory date and empirical material of the natural world and cannot anticipate or dispense with those, yet it does not arise out of them, but only by their means.’ 39 The numinous – the experience of the holy – was thus a transcendent concept as independent of sense experience as the pure reason postulated by Kant. 40 Criticising the origin of religion in animism and magic suggested by scholars like Tylor and Frazer, Otto turned it these notions on their heads. They could not explain religion, but only be explained by the later development of religion. Religion was primal aspect of the human constitution that was purely unique and could not be understand through anything else. ‘If the examples number 1 to 8 may be termed ‘pre-religion’, this is not in the sense that religion and the possibility of religion are explicable by their means: rather, they are themselves only made possible and can only be explained from a religious basic element, viz. the feeling of the numinous. This is a primal element of our psychical nature that needs to be grasped purely in its uniqueness and cannot itself be explained from anything else. Like all other primal psychical elements, it emerges in due course in the developing life of human mind and spirit and is thenceforward simply present.’ 41

Religion as A Priori Concept

Although rejecting the notion of primitive monotheism as ‘missionary apologetic’, and firmly believing that humanity moved from primitive forms of religion, such as the belief in ghosts and demons to monotheism, Otto nevertheless appreciated that higher forms of religion certainly existed among polytheist peoples. ‘But they do point to facts, which remain downright riddles, if we start from any naturalistic foundation of religion – whether animism, pantheism or another – and must in that case be got out of the way by the most violent hypotheses. The essence of the matter is this, that elements and strands are to be found in numerous mythologies and the stories of savage tribes, which reach altogether beyond the point they have otherwise attained in religious rites and usages. Notions of ‘high gods’ are adumbrated, with whom the savage has often hardly any relations in practice, if any at all, and in whom he yet acknowledges, almost in spite of himself, a value superior to that of all other mythological images, a value which may well accord with the divine in the highest sense.’ 42 The idea of the holy is an a priori concept, according to Otto, an innate truth. And the existence of this innate truth is demonstrated by the fact that subsequent developments in the idea of divinity are accepted when they are first announced, without any logical necessity. ‘How should it be logically inferred from the still ‘crude’, half-daemonic character of a moon-god or a sun-god or a numen attached to some locality, that he is a guardian and guarantor for the oath and of honourable dealing, of hospitality, of the sanctity of marriage, and of duties to tribe and to clan?’ 43 Indeed, when Socrates in Plato’s Republic declares that God is single, true, unchanging and does not deceive others, what is remarkable is not the new, impressive conception of God formed by the great Greek philosopher, but the dogmatic tone in which he pronounces it and the fact that it is uncritically accepted as true by his companion, Adeimantos. ‘And his assent is such as implies convincement; he does not simply believe Socrates; he sees clearly for himself the truth of his words. Now this is the criterion of all a priori knowledge, namely, that, so soon as an assertion has been clearly expressed and understood, knowledge of its truth comes into the mind with the certitude of first-hand insight.’ 44 The a priori nature of the religious feeling is demonstrated in Luther’s own comments about the innate feeling of God present throughout humanity. ‘The knowledge of God is impressed upon the mind of every man by God. Under the sole guidance of nature all men known that God is – without any acquaintance with the arts or sciences; and this is divinely imprinted upon all men’s minds. There has never been a people so wild and savage that it did not believe that there is some divine power that created all things’. 45 This did not mean that everyone possessed an idea of God – Otto distinguished between a priori conceptions and innate conceptions. Rather it meant that there was a predisposition towards the knowledge of God that everyone had the potential to possess, but which often needed to be awakened by a higher nature, such as a prophet or the Son of God. 46

For Rudolf Otto knowledge of God was a transcendent capacity, which existed in humanity like Kant’s pure reason. Biological evolution developed this and brought it out, but did not create it. Some evolutionary biologists have concurred at least partly with this view. The British evolutionary biologist, Sir Aleister Hardy, considered that religion was indeed the product of human biological and psychological evolution, but that nevertheless it corresponded with and was based on a real external, objective experience, and quoted the great French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, on the objective reality of the religious experience.

Evolution of Religion based on Transcendent Reality

‘Our entire study rests upon this postulate that the unanimous sentiment of the believers of all times cannot be purely illusory. Together with a recent apologist of the faith [William James] we admit that these religious beliefs rest upon a specific experience whose demonstrative value is, in one sense, not one bit inferior to that of scientific experiments, though different from them.’ 47 Hardy believed that when praying ‘we are making contact with what we call the Divine which is in part within ourselves, in our subconscious, but in part beyond ourselves.’ 48 It’s remarkable, and unorthodox view of God, but nevertheless has contacts with and indeed corroborates the perfectly orthodox Christian doctrine that God has written a consciousness of Himself on humanity’s hearts, an inner consciousness that points to His objective existence.

Similarly, attempts to explain religious ritual behaviour as the product of human evolution through analogy with the behavioural rituals of various animals, such as those of Julian Huxley and Konrad Lorenz, and Eugene d’Aquili’s and Andrew Newberg’s claim that human religious experience may be hard-wired through evolution, based on their brain-imaging scans of Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns in prayer, may actually point to an ultimate transcendental origin of religion. If that is the case, then brain imaging scans have nothing to say about the reality of the religious experience. ‘One could say that the brain wiring developed as our ancestors responded to a transcendent reality. Every claim about reality, whether of a table, an electron, or another person’s love, requires neural activity in the brain. The reality of the referent of our symbols can never be determined by examining the brain.’ 49

This perhaps explains the increasing desperation amongst some atheist polemicists to provide a materialistic explanation for religion, and the shrill tone of atheist denunciations of religion as a maladaptive form of evolutionary behaviour. Rationalist criticisms of religion have failed to explain religion away, and the major 19th century attempts to account for its origin have now been rejected. Freudianism in particular is no longer taken seriously by scholars as such an explanation of religion. Similarly attempts to explain religion as based on the child-like thinking patterns of primitive people have been demonstrated as being scientifically wrong and based on racism. Dawkins’ pronouncement in The God Delusion that belief in God was like children’s imaginary friends has more than a passing resemblance to these discredited theories and is no more convincing. Religion, like so much else in human nature, cannot be simply reduced to evolutionary explanations. Instead, such explanations, rather than disproving religion, may demonstrate that religion confers a benefit upon humans as biological organisms and point to its basis in the transcendent reality of the Almighty. Indeed, these may even act to provide some support to the traditional Christian doctrine that a knowledge, or predisposition to the knowledge of God is ubiquitous throughout humanity. The ancient Hebrews were able to use rationalist critiques of ancient religions to demonstrate their falsity against the true religion of the one God. However, rationalist attempts to explain away religion as a whole have proven to be extremely problematic, and have paradoxically succeeded in rendering atheism problematic, irrational, and a potentially destructive evolutionary anomaly.

Notes

  1. ‘Phoenician Mythology’ in Felix Guirand, ed., Richard Addington and Delano Ames, trans. New LaRousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (London, Hamlyn 1968 p. 82.
  2. Philo of Byblos, Primitive History, cited in ‘Phoenician Mythology’ in Guirand, Mythology, p. 83.
  3. ‘Phoenician Mythology’ in Guirand, Mythology, p. 83.
  4. ‘The Natural History of Religion’ in David Hume, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin, Dialogues and Natural History of Religion (Oxford, OUP 1993), p. 135.
  5. Hume, ed. Gaskin, Natural History of Religion, pp. 135-6.
  6. Clinton Bennett, In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Relgion (London, Cassell 1996), p. 25.
  7. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 28.
  8. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 30.
  9. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 36.
  10. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 40.
  11. H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World (London, Watts & Co 1929), p. 36.
  12. Wells, History of the World, pp. 37-8.
  13. Wells, History of the World, p. 37.
  14. Wells, History of the World, p. 38.
  15. Wells, History of the World, p. 39.
  16. ‘Julian Jaynes’s Software Archaeology’ in Daniel C. Dennett, Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds (London, Penguin 1998), pp. 121-130.
  17. Wisdom of Solomon 13: 1-2, The Apocrypha (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), p. 65.
  18. Wisdom of Solomon 14: 12-21, The Apocrypha, p. 66.
  19. ‘Syria and Palestine’ in Encyclopedia of World Mythology (London, Peerage Books 1975), p. 109.
  20. John A. Wilson, ‘The Function of the State’ in Henri Frankfort, Mrs. H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson and Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1949), p. 81.
  21. ‘Old Testament Theology’ in D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer, A.M. Stibbs and D.J. Wiseman, eds., The New Bible Commentary Revised (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press 1970), p. 21.
  22. ‘Freud’s Evolutionary Fantasy’ in Stephen Jay Gould, The Richness of Life (London, Vintage 2007), pp. 467-480.
  23. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 40.
  24. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 37.
  25. Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion, 1898, p. 2, cited in Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 37.
  26. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 38.
  27. Ronald Hutton, The Shamans of Siberia (Glastonbury, The Isle of Avalon Press 1993), p. 14.
  28. Hutton, Shamans of Siberia, p. 15.
  29. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘God in Nuer Religion’, in Whitfield Foy, The Religious Quest (London, Routledge 1978), pp. 557-576.
  30. ‘Mythology of the Two Americas’ in Guirand, New LaRousse Encylopedia of Mythology, p. 431.
  31. Mythology of the Two Americas’ in Guirand, New LaRousse Encylopedia of Mythology, p. 434.
  32. Hume, ed. Gaskin, Natural History of Religion, p. 162.
  33. H. and H.A. Frankfort, ‘Myth and Reality, in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, pp. 28-9.
  34. ‘Evans-Pritchard, Sir Edward’ in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford, OUP 1997), p. 326.
  35. Roger Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (Oxford, OUP 2006), p. 90.
  36. Beck, Mithras Cult, p. 89.
  37. Anthony O’Hear, Beyond Evolution: Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Explanation (Oxford, Clarendon 1997), p. 12.
  38. Rudolf Otto, John W. Harvey, trans., The Idea of the Holy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1959), pp. 131-2.
  39. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 130.
  40. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 131.
  41. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 141.
  42. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 146.
  43. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 153.
  44. Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 154.
  45. Luther, Table Talk, quoted in Otto, Idea of the Holy, p. 156.
  46. Otto, Idea of the Holy, pp. 194-5.
  47. Alister Hardy, The Biology of God: A Scientist’s Study of the Religious Animal (London, Jonathan Cape 1975), p. 77.
  48. Hardy, Biology of God, p. 230.
  49. Ian Barbour, Nature, Human Nature and God (London, SPCK 2002), p. 48.

97 Responses to “The Natural History Of Religion”

  1. Rich Says:

    I suspect there is a “tree of faith” much like the “tree of life”. The abrahamic faiths are quite easy to trace back. The argument has been made that faith is a memetic virus.

    Rich

  2. JOR Says:

    There is no such thing as a memetic virus.

  3. Bob Says:

    Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind has this to say:

    We are so used to the wonderful stories of the first five books [Pentateuch]… that it is almost impossible for us to see them freshly for what they are. …it is only by a cold unworshipful reading of these powerful pages that we can appreciate the magnitude of the mental struggle that followed the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

    Why were these books put together? The first thing to realize is that the very motive behind their composition around Deuteronomy at this time was the nostalgic anguish for the lost bicamerality of a subjectively conscious people. This what religion is. And it was done just as the voice of Yahweh in particular was not being heard with any great clarity or frequency. Whatever their sources, the stories themselves, as they have been arragned, reflect human psychologies from the ninth up to the fifth century B.C., the period during which there is progressively less and less bicamerality. [297]

    That is one of the most suggestive descriptions of religion. Religion is born when the gods stopped talking to us directly and we started to lose the bicameral brain.

  4. ~B Says:

    There is no such thing as four, either, but it sure is a handy concept. The same is applicable to memes.

    Why the assumption that any recognition of the unity of spirit in all things (a transcendental experience) automatically means some justification for religiousity and a direct link to supernaturalism? One does not need the latter to ‘explain’ the former any more than one needs to believe in god to appreciate the concept and usefulness of four.

  5. Rich Says:

    That’s a very unscientific statement.

    Would you like me to make a case?

  6. JOR Says:

    You get what you give. And calling something unscientific doesn’t make it incorrect.

  7. JOR Says:

    “There is no such thing as four, either, but it sure is a handy concept. The same is applicable to memes.”

    Memes are a handy concept for a certain kind of intellectually dishonest idealogue, much like class consciousness and transcircumstantial depravity.

  8. Rich Says:

    Science is a method of inquiry, not a way of knowing. It gives explanations that fit best, and is always open to revision and reconstruction, unlike, say, theism.

    I’m open to the concept that religion is a memetic virus.

    Here’s a good article:

    http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/thoughts.html

    JOR, your hands waving. =0P

  9. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Rich, JOR, and Bob. Thanks for posting your comments.

    I agree with you in that religions often are related to each other, and that there are a number of religions which clearly are descended from others. You mentioned a family tree for the Abrahamic religions. You can also do the same for some eastern religions. Buddhism, for example, developed from Hinduism, as did Jainism and later Sikhism, though I gather that in Sikhism there is also a strong Islamic influence. This is all uncontroversial.

    Memes, however, are far more problematic, and I would agree with JOR that they don’t exist. In fact I’ve heard memetics described as ‘dead’. There was a journal of memetics, but it lasted only four issues before closing because of a lack of suitable articles.

    There are several problems with the theory.

    Firstly, the idea of a ‘meme’ is itself very loose. Dawkins coined it by analogy with genes. As the gene is the unit of heredity, so memes are supposed to be units of culture. The problem is that genes have a strict definition regarding what they consist of and how they act. Memes can be simply any cultural or intellectual trope – from a joke to a story. Now one can trace similar themes in religions – the desire for transcendence, individual and corporate salvation, the power and the mercy of the deity and so on. So we have memes being incorporated into memes. Essentially the concept becomes chaotic and incoherent.

    Secondly, ideas actually don’t spread or replicate like viruses. Alister McGrath, who’s a microbiologist, makes this point in his book, Dawkins’ God. Other microbiologists have also made the same point.

    Thirdly, the idea of memes seems, in my experience, to be chiefly popular with computer geeks who have a very Functionalist view of the mind. Dennett in his book, Consciousness Explained , devotes much time and effort to comparing the brain to a computer, talking about parallel processing and so forth. The view here is that memes are somehow cultural programmes which run on the brain’s wetware. The problem with this is that the brain isn’t a computer. It can be seen as a computer which processes information, certainly, but it can also be viewed as a gland which secretes behaviour. John Searle in particular, who is certainly not a theist, has attacked the Functionalist view of the mind.

    Given all this, I have to say that the case for memes is very far from convincing. I also have to say that there are other good reasons for getting rid of the concept.

    My problem here is that memes relativise all knowledge and human understanding, and they also have a powerful dehumanising influence. I’ll explain.

    Dawkins in one of his various statements said that he was very proud that the memes of Newton and Galileo are still being taught. Now if he said that he was glad that the theories of Newton and Galileo are still being taught, and that these scientific giants are still being justly venerated, there’d be no problem with that.

    However, that’s not what he said.

    If memes are merely cultural tropes which do not necessarily correspond to external, objective truth, then Newton’s and Galileo’s theories are indeed theories in the common sense of the word which gets scientists so riled when applied to evolution: they’re conjectures that may not have anything to do with the real world. In that case, it’s problematic why Newton’s and Galileo’s memes should be celebrated. If they’re just memes, then they may not necessarily be true and support for them is simply a matter of intellectual preference. Perhaps not even that, perhaps just simply prejudice.

    Now Galileo’s and Newton’s theories clearly are true, and Dawkins’ description of them as memes clearly has acted to deny their validity. Now Dawkins himself is aware of the effect the theory of memes has on the truth claims of science, as well as religion, which is why he has argued strongly that science isn’t memes. I don’t think these arguments stand up, and many people have described his argument in this case as ‘special pleading’.

    So I strongly believe that memes should be rejected, not just because they don’t work as a theory, but also because they immediately problematise all forms of knowledge. They lead to the Postmodern relativisation of knowledge which Dawkins hates, not away from it towards scientific truth.

    I also strongly object to memes because of the dehumanising tendencies in the concept. By describing ideas as memes, the brain simply becomes a bit of organic hardware that can be tinkered with, or even dispensed with altogether. Sue Blackmore took this idea to its logical conclusion when she started talking about her organic self, including the brain, as ‘this machine’. Following Dennett, she doesn’t believe in an essential self, an ‘I’. The result is that humans are degraded to automatons, carrying out the cultural functions with which they’ve been programmed.

    Some of Dennett’s own pronouncements on the subject of memes I find very sinister indeed. In one of his books – I think it’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea , Dennett talks about sometime in the future when we can develop memes experimentally, and see how cultural evolution progresses by selecting and culling specific memes. Presumably he thinks of culturing memes like Gregor Mendel developed his beans. But memes aren’t like that.

    People are passionately attached to ideas. Not just religion, but also politics, philosophy and other intellectual views. People value their beliefs, and don’t give them up on a mere whim, or necessarily treat them as an intellectual experiment. And attempts to do this have resulted in bloodshed. Dennett’s comments in this respect reminded me of the incident of the ‘One Hundred Flowers’ during the Cultural Revolution. Mao at one point looked like he was going to allow some freedom into Chinese intellectual life, and give people intellectual freedom: ‘Let one hundred flowers bloom!’ in his phrase. When as a result of this experiment, some of these flowers bloomed into criticism of the Communist, or at least Maoist system, the Great Leader cracked down and started executing them.

    Now this is almost exactly what Dennett has suggested should be done in the future. A state which considered that humans had no immortal souls allowed, as an experiment, different memes to be cultivated. These memes were then culled in order to make room for other memes deemed more valuable, just as Dennett envisages. In the process, people were murdered by the state.

    Now I realise that Dennett isn’t any kind of dictator. By all accounts he’s a kindly old soul who genuinely means well. The trouble is that his ideas do have consequences, terrible consequences.

    Altogether, memes are best scrapped.

  10. beastrabban Says:

    Hi B. Let’s examine your statement.

    Why the assumption that any recognition of the unity of spirit in all things (a transcendental experience) automatically means some justification for religiousity and a direct link to supernaturalism? One does not need the latter to ‘explain’ the former any more than one needs to believe in god to appreciate the concept and usefulness of four.

    Firstly, a transcendental experience does not automatically mean the unity of spirit in all things, and there is a lot of discussion by religious scholars over what constitutes a genuine religious experience. However, transcendental experiences, by pointing to a reality beyond the immediate, superficial material reality, by their nature point to a supernatural reality beyond.

    As for not believing in god to appreciate the concept and usefulness of four, actually that makes the point for me. Numbers do indeed exist as an ordering priniciple in the universe, which obey logical laws. Thus God may also exist as an immaterial, yet transcendent force affecting material reality.

  11. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the quotation from Julian Jaynes’ book, Bob. As I said, Jaynes’ theory has been rejected by scientists because it conflicts with the observed reality of schizophrenia and the ability of individuals who suffer from it to survive, as well as the functioning of the human brain. The evidence is that human consciousness was no different 6,000 years ago to what it is now. So Jaynes’ theory falls.

  12. beastrabban Says:

    Now let’s take your comment
    Science is a method of inquiry, not a way of knowing. It gives explanations that fit best, and is always open to revision and reconstruction, unlike, say, theism.

    Firstly, I agree that science is a method of inquiry. That’s why I don’t accept the atheist dogmas advanced in the name of science as true.

    As for the relative merits of change in science and its lack in religion, mutability makes no difference unless the picture of reality produced corresponds to truth. For people of faith, their religious beliefs are true, so there is no value in change.

    Also, if you truly believe that religion is a memetic virus, then you’ve just contradicted yourself, as clearly Dawkins implies with his description of religions as a cultural virus that they change and mutate, like viruses.

  13. JOR Says:

    Science is a method of inquiry, not a way of knowing. It gives explanations that fit best, and is always open to revision and reconstruction, unlike, say, theism.

    Sometimes it gives explanations that fit best. It’s as error-prone as any other legitimate method. When it strays outside of its competence it is of no use at all, as we see with memes. In any case theism is not a method of inquiry in and of itself, and there’s no reason that theism couldn’t be open to revision. In fact it is open to revision. Members of a theistic religion may insist that the truths they believe in are timeless, but their conception of those truths changes over time. These facts are not contradictory, or any more surprising than the fact that science is constantly revised but is ultimately still learning about the same universe that has always been there, or that has been there much longer than science has in any case.

    I’m open to the concept that religion is a memetic virus.

    Your openness thus is clearly just a symptom of some memetic virus.

    Here’s a start on what is wrong with memes: http://radgeek.com/gt/2005/01/21/friday_antimeme/
    And a follow up in the comments section here: http://radgeek.com/gt/2005/12/09/friday_antimeme/#comments

  14. Rich Says:

    Well, at least we’ve got dialogue now.

    Religions do change, this has been observed. It does not stop them making absolute truth claims, though.

    Also this phrase “For people of faith, their religious beliefs are true, so there is no value in change.” – this is some personal / relative truth, I take it? They can’t all be right.

    First, let me highlight that computer viruses show that no organic substrate is required to be a virus and that information content is key.

    For the sake of stimulating thought, let’s look at the life cycle of a biological virus.

    1. Attachment
    2. Penetration
    3. Uncoating
    4. Replication
    5.Release

    What would the religious virus’ analogs be?

    We have to fit evangelism, anti-intellectualism and “have lots of kids” into the framework.

    Some viruses also trick the immune system into thinking that they’re not a threat. What would the religious virus’ analogs be?

  15. Rich Says:

    “Your openness thus is clearly just a symptom of some memetic virus.”

    Possibly, the scientific method could be such. Or perhaps a symbiote. I don’t see any of the negatives that come with religion, personally.

  16. Rich Says:

    “It’s as error-prone as any other legitimate method.”

    No. Its a recursive search. If you’ve ever studied search / AI you know this not to be true.

  17. JOR Says:

    “No. Its a recursive search.”

    Well, of course you can say scientists can’t make errors if you define error out of existence in the context of science. I can say the same thing about philosophy, or even theology. You’re equivocating.

    “What would the religious virus’ analogs be?”

    Why look for them? Any analogs are bound to be uninteresting, false, or both. People believe things for reasons. Sometimes they are bad reasons. To the extent that memetics is not flat wrong, it says just this, but dressed up in pseudo-scientific jargon.

  18. JOR Says:

    “It does not stop them making absolute truth claims, though.”

    Er, what in the world does that have to do with anything?

  19. Rich Says:

    Hi Jor.

    “It’s as error-prone as any other legitimate method.” My reply was concerned with this statement as I can conceive less accurate yet still legitimate methods. So I’m not equivocationg, simply pointing out your mistake.

    “Why look for them? Any analogs are bound to be uninteresting, false, or both. ” – You start with anti-intellectualism and finish with an unsupported and likely false dichotomy. I gave up at that point.

    “It does not stop them making absolute truth claims, though.” – This was in response to BeastRabban’s well articulated point, “Also, if you truly believe that religion is a memetic virus, then you’ve just contradicted yourself, as clearly Dawkins implies with his description of religions as a cultural virus that they change and mutate, like viruses.”

    Fond regards.

  20. JOR Says:

    Rich, you have not made a single argument, or anything like an argument. You have made unbacked assertions and then whined when I returned the favor.

    “You start with anti-intellectualism and finish with an unsupported and likely false dichotomy. I gave up at that point.”

    You clearly do not know what anti-intellectualism is. What anti-intellectualism is not: A considered rejection of a pseudo-scientific and blatantly anti-conceptual fad, and for reasons well-articulated in a previously cited philosophical argument.

  21. beastrabban Says:

    Rich, JOR actually has a point about the problems with the analogies offered by memetic theory. They’re banal, and don’t actually explain anything, or give any deeper insight than other, alternative explanations. In fact, I’d say that it radically curtails investigation of cultural, social and historical issues. I’ll explain using a purely secular example.

    Let’s take, for example, the rise of Communism in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Now you can treat it as a foreign virus invading the Russian body politic, citing the growth of Revolutionary socialism inspired by, or infected by, French Revolutionary ideology. You could also perhaps, to pursue the biological analogy even further, consider that Russian societal resistance to the infection was lowered by the horrors of industrialisation, and an increased awareness of the poverty and squalor of the peasants and workers by the liberal intelligentsia. Yet this does not explain why individual Russians took up and advocated revolutionary socialism, nor why one brand – Lenin’s own form of Marxism, survived to become the official ideology. Individual decisions clearly played a part in the growth of Communism, as intellectuals turned to Marxism rather than the Utopian Socialism of Saint-Simon or the rural anarchism of Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Tolstoy or the Slavophiles.

    Similarly, broader economic and social trends played a part as a well – the industrialisation of Russian society and the rise of industrial workers, which made the Marxism, which saw the future as being built by the industrial proletariat rather than rural peasants, more realistic as a sociological explanation. Other explanations would also include the growth of an educated administrative class exposed to western liberal values and philosophy through the creation of universities and the administrative reforms of Catherine the Great. But you don’t actually need memes to explain those.

    By treating the human mind as solely a piece of wetware, regardless of what Dawkins actually may have said about a research programme to find how memes spread, memetics actually limits the explanations available to someone researching this area. It merely says that ideas spread like viruses, and some people are more open to them than others. But to explain why ideas spread, and why they gain currency, you have to go beyond memetics. In short, the analogy doesn’t say anything that can’t be better said without it.

    It’s also misleading. I’ve seen short pieces in New Scientist where it’s clear that the person writing has thought that the Arab-Israeli conflict is simply a conflict of ‘memes’: Judaism vs. Islam. Now that’s very likely how many Israelis and Arabs do see it. However, it’s superficial. There are other, deeper issues involved as well: nationalism, the failure of secularism in the provision of jobs, economic security and national prestige amongst Arab states, a sense of racial and national threat – Israel was essentially built by a generation that had seen their people in Europe almost destroyed, and was determined that this would not happen again – and great power interests in the region, both ideological – capitalism vs. communism, and economic. A straightforward explanation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of the Judaism meme vs. the Islam meme is false, and obscures deeper aspects to the conflict.

    I also have to say that I’m highly suspicious of any biological reading of societal processes after Oswald Spengler. Spengler’s book, The Decline of the West was a powerful impetus to the rise of the Nazi party, as it viewed the rise and decline of civilisations very much in biological terms – of growth and senescence. Memes does this for the whole intellectual process, and I think there is very much a real totalitarian danger there.

    As for religions spreading themselves like viruses because of conversion, anti-intellectualism and ‘having lots of children’, these really aren’t good analogies either. People convert to secular ideologies, like atheism, which may be for emotional rather than any kind of intellectual reasons. Anti-intellectualism isn’t a necessary feature of religion, as can be seen by reading the great theistic philosophers from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism and so on. Clearly, whatever they were, Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas were not anti-intellectual. On the other hand, certain secular, atheist philosophies may be. The Italian Futurists believed that ideologies arose later after concrete actions, and were stridently critical of philosophy. This can be justified by the belief that ideologies are merely the superstructure over, and disguising, the economic basis of society, as posited by Marxism. Thus atheism, or some atheist ideologies too become anti-intellectual.

    As for ‘having lots of kids’, again that’s questionable whether its a quintessential feature of religion as a whole. For some religions, yes, it’s an important part. For others, not so much. Protestants tend to have a lower birthrate than Roman Catholics, for example. And some atheist regimes have tried to promote large families, like the Nazis and the Communists, both of whom gave awards to women who had large numbers of babies for the state.

    But children are the means by which the human race survives, rather than simply an ideology. Ideologies of fertility could be said to be there to promote human survival, at least for conditions such as the historic past when many children died in infancy and human life-expectancy was generally low, so that large families were an advantage, rather than a threat to the ecology. Now viruses also kill their hosts, so one could also argue that a secular ideology that demands limiting families, or promotes childlessness, is also showing a virus-like behaviour.

    In short the virus analogy for religion breaks down. It’s not good as it needs to be heavily qualified, and can just apply to everything secular as well.

    Altogether, memes are based dispensed with as an unnecessary, and indeed anti-intellectual view of the way real people, acting in real, social and historical circumstances, make decisions and accept views of the world.

  22. Rich Says:

    Hi Guys.
    Your, you may have considered your rejection but didn’t really articulate the reasons. Therefore it looked as if there was no consideration, Ie anti-intellectualism. Try for “No, because..” rather than “No”.

    I’m not sure “anti-conceptual” is internally congruent, Btw. There’s a recursive joke in there somewhere.

    The special pleading for a long history of Christian intellectuals does nothing for me. Replace “Christian” with “Male” and you’ll get a better fit. Perhaps this will highlight the folly?

    Most faiths are clearly anti-intellectual. “Turn of brain” is part of the assault on rationality:

    “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.”
    –Proverbs 3:5 (KJV)
    “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ…”
    –2 Corinthians 10:5 (KJV)
    “In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.”
    –Luke 10:21 (KJV)
    “For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
    –1 Corinthians 1:19 (KJV)
    “If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
    –1 Corinthians 3:18-19 (KJV)

    For examples. Please note I’m not saying All Christians aren’t intellectual (BeastRabban clearly *is*, for example) but the message is there, loud and clear.

    For me Christianity would be very similar to Islam if it wasn’t for the enlightenment.

    With regards to Memes offering nothing, I disagree. Knock out studies that have advanced genetics could advance memetics.

    Geez, let me try and formulate a hypothetical experiment, and then we’ll look at implementation problems.

    Religion has a few mechanisms as I see it (not a complete list)

    (1) Rational argument – TAG, for example.
    (2) “Evidence” – Argument from design, etc.
    (3) Reward – “Heaven”
    (4) Appeal to fear “Hell”
    (5) Have lots of kids to indoctrinate

    We could knock out number (4) and create a religion that has no hell. Would it be more or less virulent? I suspect “fear of burning” is the great Christian motivator.

    The problem of course would be how to do the experiment? We can’t do it on ourselves, as we’d know its an experiment. String theory has the same issues – no experiments, only theory. But that doesn’t make it wrong, not unworthy of further inquiry.

    Rich

  23. Rich Says:

    Another thought – Population genetics is a different field to genetics. So the whole Russian Revolution bit doesn’t fly for me. The key argument seems to be the reductionist nature of Memetics. Geez, you guys are always trying to smuggle the magic in..! =op

  24. JOR Says:

    “Your, you may have considered your rejection but didn’t really articulate the reasons.”

    I realize scientific method suggests we adopt every possible idea that hasn’t been falsified yet, and so just saying that ‘I don’t see a good case for adopting it’ is unsatisfactory, but I did cite a philosophical argument that articulates most of the reasons I see for rejecting memes. After seeing your irrelevant dismissals of Beast’s lengthy treatment, I’m glad I didn’t waste the time to propound the arguments on my own.

    I am not a theist (and neither is Charles Johnson), by the way. But your assumptions thus are noted.

  25. Rich Says:

    Yet you wasted your time typing that.
    *wink*

    “After seeing your irrelevant dismissals” – oh, okay, that’s settled it then.

  26. JOR Says:

    “Yet you wasted your time typing that.”

    Two minutes that I deemed to not be a waste.

    And yes, irrelevant dismissals. Here are some examples of your more obvious errors:

    “We could knock out number (4) and create a religion that has no hell. Would it be more or less virulent? I suspect “fear of burning” is the great Christian motivator.” = Red herring.

    “The key argument seems to be the reductionist nature of Memetics. Geez, you guys are always trying to smuggle the magic in..! =op” = Total ignorance of the issue.

  27. Rich Says:

    “Total ignorance of the issue”, well that’s a super explanation that really covers all the bases and enlightens us all. Well done Jor, you are the winner! I wouldn’t waste your keen mind with me as there are some many unsolved crimes and particle and quantum physics have yet to be unified.

    I’ll just jibber away to BeastRabban if that’s okay with you.

    Fond regards, Rich.

  28. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Rich.

    Regarding the supposed anti-intellectual position of Christianity, I don’t see those verses as necessarily making that case. Firstly, the book of Proverbs is clearly based on articulating the divine wisdom as the basis of material reality, and participation in it the factor that enables kings and judges to rule. One can find the same approach stated with equal clarity in the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon. What those verses do state is that worldly wisdom is frequently at odds with the divine transcendent wisdom. This really doesn’t surprise me, as humans are only finite beings, and finite beings can be wrong. I don’t think the unaided, finite human mind can truly comprehend the infinite and transcendent, which is why revelation is necessary. Again, go back to the passage I quoted from Locke. Locke was clearly not anti-intellectual, but pessimistic about philosophy correctly and unequivocally leading to God. However, he was convinced that Christian revelation was still rational. As for the particular verse you quote about knowledge of God being given to babes and ordinary people, rather than the wise, again I think you’re missing the point. The whole point of Christ’s message is that God accepts everyone, regardless of their position in human society, the humble as well as the rich. In ancient Greek and Jewish society, the only people who were expected to be able to approach God were those sufficiently wealthy to devote their lives to either philosophical investigation, in the case of the Greeks, or a study of the Torah, in the case of the Jews. Now clearly Christ did not advocate abandoning the study of the Torah, even if with His death He abrogated Old Testament Law. What He did do is go beyond the narrow circle of polite society to show that God will save and redeem even the poor and uneducated, like shepherds, and other members of the ‘people of the land’ who were despised by the wealthier classes. This doesn’t mean that Christ is telling people not to think, only that being an intellectual won’t bring you any closer to God by itself.

    As for Christianity being like Islam today if the Enlightenment hadn’t occurred, there are a number of problems with this statement. Firstly, Christianity clearly had an intellectual tradition behind it long before the Enlightenment – Origen and St. Augustine were both philosophers who found that Christianity satisfied their thirst for philosophy. Origen in particular taught Christianity as philosophy. One could go on and list others like Boethius, John Scot Erigena, St. Anselm and so on.

    The other problem is that the Enlightenment itself is problematic. Some historians actually consider that in many respects the Enlightenment didn’t do anything that wasn’t being done by Christians already, and the central project of the Enlightenment – the rational account of nature and its domination – was essentially medieval. You can find the same kind of arguments for the society the French philosophes wanted to create in John Harrington’s The City of the Sun in the 17th century, for example. The astronomer John Barrow, in his book, Theories of Everything pointed to the rationalism of medieval theology by stating that if you remove ‘God’ from many theological passages and replace it with ‘mathematics’ the meaning is essentially unchanged. The great medieval theologians like Oresme, Buridan, Grosseteste and others were keenly interested in science, and discussed scientific issues quite freely in their quodlibetum.

    So I really don’t think the charge of anti-intellectualism holds up against Christianity as a whole. Nor do I think that changing the word ‘Christian’ to ‘male’ says anything about the situation. The medieval schools were founded to teach Christianity, and had as their basis the idea that you also needed a grounding in secular knowledge in order to do this properly. They also believed very firmly in knowledge for its own sake, as they believed that Adam, before the Fall, had practised all the lawful human arts and sciences. By cultivating the mind, one was going back to the prelapsarian state of grace.

    I am well aware, however, that there are some anti-intellectual pastors in the Church. And I don’t agree with their position either.

  29. Rich Says:

    I guess we’re interpreting scripture differently, because my reading of the texts is clearly “don’t think for yourselves”. I guess neither of us can consult the author, which is a big part of the problem.

    With regard to the enlightenment, are you sure you don’t mean “reformation”? Christianity became less brutal, but the age of reason was brought about by folks both of faith and not.

  30. Rich Says:

    “Nor do I think that changing the word ‘Christian’ to ‘male’ says anything about the situation” – The point was they were *all* Christian back then, so inference is prohibited by multicolinearity.

  31. beastrabban Says:

    Now to go back to your comments about my remarks on the spread of Communism in revolutionary Russia. Actually, I wasn’t trying to make any comment about population genetics, or say anything about the supernatural in that example at all. I was merely stating that as an explanation for certain social phenomena, memes don’t work. You don’t need them as the phenomena they supposedly explain can be explained perfectly well using normal human psychology and historical inquiry, rather than a spurious analogy with epidemiology.

    I’ll go even further and state that in my opinion memes may even act against acquiring a proper knowledge of a particular object, such as certainly symbols. For example, the five-pointed star can be considered a meme in that it is the product of human culture which carries a particular meaning.

    Now one of the first things they tell you in archaeology is that the meaning of symbols changes over time, and that because a particular symbol may continue in a culture through its history, this does not mean that its meaning remains the same. The pentagram is a case in point. It has a history going back millennia. Today it’s been adopted by the Wiccan and Neo-Pagan movement as the symbol of their faith. Yet in the Middle Ages and early modern period, it was a Christian symbol representing the Five Senses and the Five Wounds of Christ. Before then, it was a pagan symbol with a different set of meanings going back to ancient Babylon.

    Now one could analyse the persistence of the pentagram as a meme and its reproduction. I’ve come across an archaeological work which has done the same with megalithic stone circles and certain motifs in Renaissance art. However, to make sense of that meme, you have to interpret it through other memes, which renders the whole concept of the meme confused and incoherent. Simply treating the pentagram as a meme that has spread across cultures without recognising why it should remain popular, or the different meanings attached to it, actually says nothing about the pentagram except that it has crossed cultures.

    This actually leads to a conceptual cul-de-sac. I’ll give you another example from archaeology.

    During the hey-day of Logical Positivism from the 1930s to the 1950s, speculations about the metaphysical beliefs of past cultures was discouraged, because it was felt that such meaning could never be recovered from the material culture. Indeed, much archaeological work consisted of analysing changes in the material culture, such as the evolution of types of brooch and so on, without considering why these changed. Their changes were noted, and the progress through society marked. But the reasons for those changes were largely not investigated.

    With the fall of Logical Positivism, archaeologists felt that some of the metaphysical beliefs of past cultures could be gained from an appopriate investigation of their material culture. The way people built their houses says something about their value systems, as often cultures use their homes as a microcosm of the universe. The problem with the memetic approach is that if you treat artifacts and ideas as memes, whose progress through society is to be charted in the same way a virus spreads, then you’re essentially back to 1930s-1950s style of archaeology: cataloguing the spread and changes in material culture, without actually wanting to explain why they do.

    It’s because of this that I find memes unscientific, and I have to agree with JOR, actually anti-intellectual.

  32. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the response.

    With regard to the enlightenment, are you sure you don’t mean “reformation”? Christianity became less brutal, but the age of reason was brought about by folks both of faith and not.

    No, I mean the Enlightenment. Now I agree that Deists, Agnostics and atheists were involved in the Enlightenment project, but the arguments for toleration and so on long predated them. William Penn argued for freedom of conscience citing Tertullian apologetics, while the Elizabethan Puritans also articulated their own demands for religious freedom in the 16th century. Some historians will even point out that in practical terms the Enlightenment didn’t contribute much. The Underground Railroad was operated by Methodists, while the leaders of the British antislavery movement were Evangelical Christians.

  33. beastrabban Says:

    The point was they were *all* Christian back then, so inference is prohibited by multicolinearity.

    This doesn’t make any difference either, because the impetus for their writing came from within their faith – their desire to promote it, investigate it, and expand it, based on an intellectual tradition present in Christianity from the time of ancient Rome.

  34. beastrabban Says:

    In defence of JOR, no, he’s certainly not a Christian, and I’ve spent some time arguing with him about Christianity on Frank Walton’s blog, Atheism Sucks . However, I’ve found that JOR is always well-informed and makes interesting points, which even though I don’t necessarily agree with them, are based on careful consideration and need a response. Just as you’re making carefully thought out points which need a response here.

  35. Rich Says:

    You’ve made the leap that all memes are viruses. I didn’t espouse that. We’ve gone a bit Po-Mo now and made meme almost synonymous for meta-narrative, which it is not. Memetics isn’t at odds with psychology. You can describe chemistry purely through physics, for example. Memes aren’t ideas but the building blocks or ideas. Your last statement is worrisome; you implicitly define only things that are “scientific” as “intellectual”. Whilst I could use this as an argument for the anti-intellectualism of theism, I don’t agree with the premise. Memes, like Genes are information. Don’t get hung up over the substrate. If you want to make some argument regarding the corporeality of information, you may, but you’ll be excluding ‘information’ form ‘science’.

    The pentagram, or Christmas trees, could be examples of the genetic mechanism known as cooption.

  36. Rich Says:

    “This doesn’t make any difference either, because the impetus for their writing came from within their faith – their desire to promote it, investigate it, and expand it, based on an intellectual tradition present in Christianity from the time of ancient Rome.” Bald assertion.

  37. Rich Says:

    It may have been there commitment to being bipeds that led them to it?

  38. Rich Says:

    I stay clear of “Atheim Sucks” because of arbitarty moderation and the juveline tone. Jor is hopefully now off cooling the planet of something.

  39. beastrabban Says:

    You’ve made the leap that all memes are viruses.

    That’s how Dawkins conceives them: as viruses of the mind. That’s why it’s been called ‘cultural virus theory. Now they might be information, rather than biological constructs, but he still sees them being spread through infecting the material substrate of human minds. And they can be large ideas too, not just odd bits of culture, like jokes and so on.

    And no, I’m not equating ‘intellectual’ with ‘scientific’. I think they’re anti-intellectual because they get in the way of deeper explanations in favour of a superficial phenomenology.

  40. beastrabban Says:

    “This doesn’t make any difference either, because the impetus for their writing came from within their faith – their desire to promote it, investigate it, and expand it, based on an intellectual tradition present in Christianity from the time of ancient Rome.” Bald assertion.

    No, merely statement of fact. They saw themselves as philosophers, and if you read some of the monastic authors from that period, it’s very clear that they did. And they drew heavily on the tradition of Christian scholarship established by Origen, St. Augustine and so on, who as I said, saw themselves as philosophers.

  41. Rich Says:

    This is the intellectual tradition that has less than half of americans believing in evolution and many believing in YEC?

  42. beastrabban Says:

    This is the intellectual tradition that has less than half of americans believing in evolution and many believing in YEC?

    Actually, Creationism has, until very recently, been a minority position. The dominant attitude amongst Christian intellectuals after Darwin was theo-evolutionism. Young Earth Creationism emerged only in the 1960s.

    And there is the question of how secure Darwinism actually is. The Discovery Institute’s Gil Dodgen was talking about a debate he was going to have with William Provine. What he stated was interesting in his announcement of it at Uncommon Descent was that Provine had stated that Creationists were right about how empty much Darwinist thinking actually was.

  43. Rich Says:

    YEC is / was the default position until science showed otherwise. the YEC movement was in response to science, trying to re-interpret reality to match scripture.

    No thiest thought 13.7 billion years before the scientific revelations.

    Uncommon Descent? LOL. Science can’t yet explain it, so god, scratch that for separation reasons, designer, did it.

    Gil:

    http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/2006/10/03/gil-dodgen-uncommonly-dense/

    please remember to kick your PC during simulations.

  44. Rich Says:

    “Darwinism” has been dead for ages. We had a modern synthesis, NDE, all of that good stuff. Be careful, or one might think you flail against a straw man from 150 years ago.

  45. JOR Says:

    ““Total ignorance of the issue”, well that’s a super explanation that really covers all the bases and enlightens us all.”

    The arguments have already been given. All the points you have raised so far were directly addressed in the cited post, so, you either didn’t read it or don’t understand it. If it’s the latter, then there’s nothing I can do for you. There’s no cure for willfull stupidity.

  46. beastrabban Says:

    YEC is / was the default position until science showed otherwise. the YEC movement was in response to science, trying to re-interpret reality to match scripture.

    No thiest thought 13.7 billion years before the scientific revelations.

    True, but only up to a certain point. However, there is a long tradition within Christianity, dating right back to Philo, of treating Genesis allegorically, rather than literally. Secondly, the statement that no theist thought the world was older than 13.7 billion years before the scientific revelations is actually wrong, if you take into consideration the billions of years Hindu and Buddhist mythology consider the world to have existed.

  47. beastrabban Says:

    Yes, we have the modern, Neo-Darwinian synthesis, Rich. And no, I’m not flailing against a strawman.

  48. Rich Says:

    Noooooo! JOR, focus on Fermat’s last theorem, don’t waste your precious gifts here. You are the winner! Bye!

  49. Rich Says:

    You’ve moved my goalposts. I said 13.7 billion years. That’s somehow changed to “older than 13.7 billion years”. That’s not what I said.

    “Yes, we have the modern, Neo-Darwinian synthesis, Rich. And no, I’m not flailing against a strawman.”

    That’s why I said, “be carefull!”

    *wink*

  50. JOR Says:

    “Noooooo! JOR, focus on Fermat’s last theorem, don’t waste your precious gifts here. You are the winner! Bye!”

    If you think the point of discourse is to ‘win’ then your priorities are misplaced. Bye.

  51. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Rich I have found that many people, theist or not, are not particularly fond of knowledge nor hunger for it. We all operate at different levels and the common Christian thinking is that God has traits and goals for different people set out differently. Some of the most bizarre and headscrathing commentary has been made by athiests who’ve taken to search hand destroy missions on the Web but nontheless rely on old memes themselves to try and create trouble. The trouble with this is that quite more often than not they are wrong on their own accounts and mythologies (see “bronze age text”, as BR points out) or this false notion that Christians once taught the earth is flat (also not true) or that Hebrew cosmology held flat cosmology (also false, if we take metaphorical language in the Bible for what it is…) and on and on it goes. This is not to say there are no conceptial issues with faith if you are from the outside LOOKING IN on the ideas and wonder aloud about faith. I think the issue of faith is a separate realm about relying on God for ultimate answers rather than human wisdom in all things. Prayer and supplication, etc. This does not counteract reason. Else Scripture would not be intended to be read and interpreted, etc.

    Speaking of that, I did have a question for BR again–that commentary about science not “touching” the issue of faith and prayer, and this will answer Rich also, in that, for example, I have asthma and rely on an inhaler. I would not have survived the Victorian era. Science about the lungs and how to relax them with certain chemicals helps me breathe. That being said, the Sceptic can always say “why not just let the Holy Spirit get into your bronchial tubes and create relief–why even bother going to the ER if you have an attack?”

    And so on.

    Then there was the poster who claimed that with organicially and mecially enhanced genetic foods, new power sources, high powered anti cancer methods from medicine, new housing products and thousands of other life saving things and modern fripparies, religion can’t touch the wonders of science. Technology, and consumer products are the offshoot and frozen portions of science, etc.

  52. Rich Says:

    Wakefield, your point about the general populace is well taken, and the multicollinearity issue is again to be considered (Aren’t about 90% of Americans ‘people of faith’?), but still, the erronius origins information are truth claims made by religion.

    I think with regard to literacy, logenvity etc, technology keeps increasing our quality of life.

    I’m not religious myself, and have no problem with people being religious, until they bring it into the public square or the education system.

    getting back to Meme’s, I think I could made a half decent memetic case for Christianity’s (in my opinion) irrational bigotry towards homosexuals. I’d be interested in a better, competing explanation.

  53. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    The source about homosexuality is not so much bigotry unless one can demonstrate some kind of “natural” abhorence to such a thing (which by the way does NOT look good from any point of view, akin to our revulsion to gore and horror being a natural escape mode from danger) which might indicate some biological pre-requisite for reproduction being short-circuited. But rather, in the Scriptures unless one is talking about the more liberal churches, the usual description of such acts is that it violates God’s plan for the unity and sanctity of marriage, which in turn is symbolic for the relations between Christ and the Church. More than that, both in ancient religions and secular governance, homosexuality was generally to be avoided as a lifestyle. One could make a rationalist explanation of this, I’m sure.

    Regarding the overall populace–be careful. Adherence to some vague belief is NOT the same as an organized system of faith in one’s mind. There’s a vast difference. Like a neighbor of mine admired Che Guevera. Posters and all. But this is certainly NOT the same as having the same Revolutionary zeal of blowing up power lines and attacking corporate icons with bombs, etc. Simple admiration is apparently enough. See the problem here? She does not go around saying “viva la revolucion!” and organization urban attack brigades.

    Many people posit a notion of God but don’t have something specific in mind nor do they really care, and for American culture it seems we are certainly more secular in our everyday habits regardless of any “God talk.” This can be understandibly described as “provisional atheism”.

    After all, even hard core atheists have no evidence that God does NOT exist, as they merely claim that the “problem of evil” and some quirks in life indicate that God is not part of human history. Though to be sure this quip has been answered by Scripture and free will as well as the question of HOW one determines what is “good” and “bad” in a purey mechanistic view of life.

    You SURELY understand that the Secular Web types are HARD CORE and spend hours a day online refining and rehashing their arguments whereas most people don’t give a whistle one way or another to get into donnybrooks over such abstruse ideas. The same can be said for theologians who’ve gone over this all before.

    As to education–I find that the public schools would probably not suffer from some general recognition of faith if separated from the other studies. But in our case we homeschool and I’ve commented elsewhere on the issue of what’s horribly wrong with the secularization and ideologies of the modern public schools.

    As far as “memes”, the same notion could be said of ideas and urban legends that get recycled over and over on the web and elsewhere used to denigrate people of faith. There are myths and tall tales on both sides, and people DO have a responsibility to search out the full context of things to the best of their ability before commentary. I myself am in the mode of searching, of course. Many myths about Christians, like those of Miss Popy Dixon, are hilarious and verge on parody as in Christians hate sex, Paul was a misogynist, and God hates. Period. Or that “religionists” are trying to “take over” the country. I think what commonly happens is that people read from their own age some politically correct or modernist multicultural notion that they then read back in time to compare to the vastly different mores of other times. On the one hand secularists tell us all ideas are malleable and ever-changing, that there are no solid rights and wrongs in the world, and yet deign to pass judgement on the past and ideas about women, sex, gender, salvation via grace, etc. As a married man of 15 years with three children I find some of these accusations perfectly droll.

    Having said that, I think to some degree Christians are partly responsible for some of this, in that when it comes to the core we still teach well but don’t do a good job going over what God had to say about life topics such a home and marriage, etc. They could do some better counseling. Life is hard, and the Church should have some input on how to help people over the rough patches other than quoting Scripture. I mean this in the best way, of course.

    Beyond that, I agree in part about the MEME problem, and would ask for example about the common charge from secularists several things:

    1) having so many faiths–which one shall we choose then?

    2) Hindus are raised hindus, Moslems to be adherents of Islam, and Christians in the church raised on ritual in some churches (as I was in the Episcopal Church with the water sprinkled on the head as “baptism”–and yet I know this cannot be the same as salvation.

    3) Thus we believe because of HOW we are raised. I was not raised a Muslim but I can imagine that if born in Syria this most probably would be the case. Right? All cultures impart things they think are prescient for their young. Is this what you’re arguing?

    That’s an interesting problem.

  54. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Presumably this MEME issue was from this commentary by Dawkins?

    “The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”

    Richard Dawkins

    Of course there are others. The notions here, highlighted below from quotes mined from Dawkins’ own site referring to those whom his organization apparently holds in high regards, such as Vidal, Mencken, and Voltaire and Christopher Hitchens, et al. Of course this is the saw about Christianity being the enemy of human progress. (Naturally). From Mencken we get the notion that it is akin to a man earnestly thinking his rugrats are so clever, his wife lovely, and his own thinking valid. From Clarke we get the notion that it is anti-thought and expects dominion.

    But from Brooks and Dawkins we DO have some issues to flesh out. One is the notion of this MEME being merely a comfort zone. The other, from Brooks is that in religion one does tend to have the ultimate origens explanation in the Unknowable trying to explain the Known. Similar to Hitchens comments also, about proof. And of course from Russel we have the idea that Scripture never praises regular brain or book smarts.

    “I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.”

    Bertrand Russell

    “To explain the unknown by the known is a logical procedure; to explain the known by the unknown is a form of theological lunacy.”

    David Brooks

    “There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting… But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it’s true.”

    Richard Dawkins

    “Most people can’t bear to sit in church for an hour on Sundays. How are they supposed to live somewhere very similar to it for eternity?”

    Mark Twain

    “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”

    Christopher Hitchens

    “Nothing can be more contrary to religion and the clergy than reason and common sense.”

    Voltaire —from Philosophical Dictionary

    “They said God was on high and he controlled the world and therefore we must pray against Satan. Well, if God controls the world, he controls Satan. For me, religion was full of misstatements and reaches of logic that I just couldn’t agree with.”

    Gene Roddenberry

    “If Atheism is a religion, then health is a disease!”

    Clark Adams

    “It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.”

    Sir Arthur C. Clarke

    “So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence.”

    Bertrand Russell

    “It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe..”

    Richard Dawkins

    “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart”

    H.L. Mencken

    “Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.”

    Peter Ustinov

  55. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Rich and Wakefield.

    Regarding the issue of science and medicine and religion, it really isn’t the case of a straightforward conflict between the two. There’s a passage in the Apocrypha which advises you to respect and admire the physician, because of his skill at preserving health, and Christians have been active in medical practice and research down the centuries. One of the classics of 17th century religion was Thomas Brown’s Religio Medici – A Doctor’s Religion, so called because Brown was a doctor. The first public hospitals were built by Christians because for them, everyone was a potential Christian and so had the same right to medical care. Pagan hospitals tended to be clinics for wealthy aristocrats. Way back in 1984 the Christian Medical Fellowship published a book, The Influence of Christians in Medicine , edited by J.T. Aitken, H.W.C. Fuller, and D. Johnson, detailingn some of the great contributions Christians, and Christianity, have made to medicine.

    Any atheist who sneeringly remarks that a person of faith suffering from asthma should seek to be healed by the Holy Spirit entering their lungs is committing a mistake. That’s a miracle, and a special demonstration of God’s grace. Now Christians and other religious people obvious do pray for the health of their sick friends and relatives, but they don’t expect miracles. Rather they also look for material ways of relieving suffering, rather than simply relying on God to do it all for them.

    Regarding the problem of building a case for memes on Christian attitudes towards homosexuality, I think you’d have real problems, Rich. Wakefield’s pointed out that a lot of people have deep, unexamined views on a wide range of subjects regardless of whether they’re Christian or atheist, and frequently not touching religion. Also, it assumes that there’s a correct attitude towards homosexuality which isn’t the product of a ‘meme’. The problem is, if humans are just ‘meme machines’ as in the title of Sue Blackmore’s book, then every non-Christian attitude towards homosexuality is also a meme, and so not necessarily true. Furthermore, the meme analogy breaks down because of the forced nature of the analogy between cultural tropes and viruses, for the reasons I’ve mentioned before. My attitude is that memes are a liability as an explanation for any kind of cultural trait, and are better off jettisoned.

    As for the quotes from the various Freethinkers, none of them are particularly deep and all show their utterer’s prejudices. Let’s take Arthur C. Clarke’s “It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” . The problem with that is that the separation of Church and State on which America was founded was based on the demands for religious tolerance articulated by Richard Baxter, a 17th century Puritan minister, in his The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution . Other English commentators during the English Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms made similar recommendations, including the suggestion that removing an established religion would make the clergy more diligent about their duties, as they would then have to rely on their congregation rather than a state stipend for their income. The other problem is that even now some forms of Christianity are strongly alienated from the state as a fallen institution, which is given to oppressing Christians, and discourage their members from political activity. Now I’m aware that Clarke has said ‘almost all’, rather than ‘all’, but it’s safe to say that it’s quite a sweeping, dubious statement.

    Russell’s comments about the churches blocking moral progress presupposes that there is such a thing as moral progress. Looking at some of the moral advances of the 20th century, this is very doubtful. Besides which, if there is no transcendent truth, and all morality is merely intersubjective, then Russell has no objective ground for dismissing the churches as immoral. As for the Gospels not uttering a word in praise of intelligence, this is immaterial, and misses the point of what Jesus was actually doing. Intelligence doesn’t make a person any holier or morally better on its own, and I can think of some extremely clever people who were and are highly immoral. As for Gene Roddenberry, it doesn’t seem that he actually read much theology. God doesn’t control Satan so much as give him a degree of freedom before finally reining him in at the apocalypse. Read the book of Job: God gives Satan the freedom to tempt and accuse, but he’s nevertheless kept on a leash. God has a plan, but it doesn’t make people puppets.

    Roddenberry himself was not averse to the irrationally transcendent. Way back in the 1970s he was a member of a circle that used hold seances at the Stanford Research Institute, with Andrija Puharich, receiving messages from an intelligence calling itself ‘the Nine’ and claiming to be the Ancient Egyptian Ennead. There’s been suggestions amongst the New Age conspiracy fringe that ‘the Nine’ was a bit of CIA psy-ops in order to set up a worldwide space god religion in order to enslave humanity. So, not a person who was in a position to make judgements about logical fallacies in Christianity.

    The problem with Dawkins’ comment: There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting… But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it’s true” is that it can be turned back on atheism. Dawkins has always struck me as having a visceral hatred of God, and it strikes me that atheism clearly is his comfort, and so the comment about morphine could be equally appropriate there.

    As for Hitchens’ comment, “What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof” , this again says to me that Hitchens doesn’t know either his Bible or the history of philosophy. Actually, I think he does, but this is just a catchy soundbite to get the atheist troops enthusiastic. It sounds good to them, because it appeals to their prejudices, but actually it’s rubbish.

    As for Peter Ustinov’s “Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them” , again, it’s another soundbite. If you take it seriously, it’s nihilism, which really does divide people because it denies any kind of moral norm or even shared worldview, beyond not believing in anything. It’s rubbish, but again, it’s a nice quote with punch, so it appears deeper than it actually is.

    “It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe..” Presumably this is Dawkins’ excuse for an increasing number of people rejecting Darwinism, despite his best efforts. Actually, I suspect the reason an increasing number of people are rejecting Darwinism is because of the atheist metaphysical baggage Dawkins and his friends have loaded it with.

    Voltaire’s comment about reason and commonsense being enemies of the clergy and religion makes the mistake of assuming that Christian doctrine is unreasonable, and that commonsense is both reasonable and a reliable guide. In fact, commonsense is frequently fallible, and Christian doctrine is reasonable and logically consistent. So Voltaire’s comment falls.

    Brooks’ comment is again nothing but superficial philosophising. He misses the point that God can be known through His revelation and His works, while still remaining transcendent and unknowable. This was worked out in Greek Orthodox theology in the Middle Ages. Again, it’s punchy and quotable, but not very deep.

  56. JOR Says:

    “Looking at some of the moral advances of the 20th century, this is very doubtful.”

    Beast, manstealing, oppression, and genocide continued as they always had through the 20th Century. Technological advances made them more effective than in past times, perhaps, but they were nothing new. The main thing that separates the 20th Century horrors from the rest of man’s bloody history is the disproportionate number of people who objected to the 20th Century’s horrors on moral grounds – whether their moral ideas had been drawn from principle or sentiment.

  57. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    “Besides which, if there is no transcendent truth, and all morality is merely intersubjective, then Russell has no objective ground for dismissing the churches as immoral”

    I remember something you said about this in regards to Osama Bin Laden. I agree in general, but playing the Devil’s advocate here, one could say here that with Osama’s repugnant ideology not being falsifiable under a materialist explanation of the evolution of morals, they would respond that the natural abhorrence itself is evidence that in the deep recesses of the evolved mind are the moral qualms about death and destruction, etc, from where we pull all ideas of right and wrong. Of course some materialist thinkers are subjective, and some like Pinker are on the verge of loony when it comes to end of life and animal rights’ scenarios, but for the most part most of us are the same on most issues of life and death. We differ on taste and style and relationship priorities, etc. Or so the argument would go.

    Elsewhere, I think the Brooks issue (or Hitchens) is not so easily wrapped up. I am not an expert in philosophy, but the Ontological and Teleological arguments are said to fail these days in modern reinterpretations. So–How can we demonstrate Special Revelation for example, to be a valid sense comparable to or on par with sight, sound, and touch as sensory means to explore the world and know the Mind of God and His Will—other than Scriptural reference, (which the Skeptic is not going to trust), of course?

    TO JOR:

    True, except not only the scale of horror but the PRESUMED fact that one would have thought that with all the highbrow philosophizing in the earlier century we would have known better and avoided a horric war to stanch other people’s imperial terror and racism in the first place. William Henry III once said that we are an “evolving” people morally as well as biologically. I have doubts on the last one most of all.

    While it may be true to many extents that good and progressive economic ideas and mercy for impoverished and mentally ill, increased voting sufferage, procedural rights for the accused, and other similar advocacies and welfares came out of 19th century, it has been pointed out even by atheists like Leonard Peikoff (The Ominous Parelles), and historian Hanna Arendt that the horrors of the 20th century were due in no small part to Continental radicalism that came not long before. A battle over kings and kingdoms and racial hatred in the 1910s-1940s should not have liquidated 50 million human beings, nor should Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot gotten away with much early admiration for thier purges and pograms of Jews and serfs and others on the wrong end of ideology.

  58. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    Ooops—I have doubts on the last one most of all.
    meant to say, the FIRST one, most of all.

    grief.

  59. JOR Says:

    “True, except not only the scale of horror but the PRESUMED fact that one would have thought that with all the highbrow philosophizing in the earlier century we would have known better and avoided a horric war to stanch other people’s imperial terror and racism in the first place.”

    More pople did regard the terror as obscene (as a matter of moral principle, not just as a matter of opportunistic tribal posturing) than did in past eras. Compare the number of medieval Moslems and Christians who regarded conquest and massacre as tools of statecraft to be illegitimate to the number of socialists (let alone modern secularists) who considered Stalin and Mao to be bad guys. The number of the former is close to “none”, the number of the latter is, on the other hand, proportionally quite significant. From this we can infer that if people had the same values as people of, say, 500 years ago, given 20th Century technology, things would have been much worse. I’m not trying to propound a Whig theory of moral development or anything, but in this particular case, yes, things have gotten better (though largely in SPITE of some ‘Enlightenment’ philosophical developments, such as Utilitarianism).

  60. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    JOR, thanks for your input here.

    I think we err if we think that philosophy or material progress and increased on-demand round-the-clock awareness of things has made us much better. Nations are more careful–or the industrialized ones are–for the simple expedient that there is far more economic and military liability these days. Until now (as a student of foreign poolicy studies and nuclear policy) the balance of terror or MAD is what kept the superpowers in check.

    People DID object to certain actions in the Middle and before. People’s feelings and hurt were not substantially different than now.

    Remember too that while all ages have their demons, only in the modern world woudl an Attila have been lauded in the press. We actually had that. His name was Joseph Stalin. The press in America had its fifth column (and I once had a professor of social studies who said Stalin was evil BUT he was a necessary evil to “whip” certain groups into the Modern Era, etc) that found little wrong in the early years of Stalin and Mao. The facts of their horror were known then. No one was taken aback or shocked.
    Secularists may have thought Stalin a “bad guy” but always qualified this measure by pointing out deficiencies in America like farm degredation, racism, and other stretch comparatives. I once had this misfortune of having a Canadian socialist remind me that while Stalin and Mao were nasty, we have no room to talk if we want to drill for oil and mess up ice in the Arctic and hurt those cute polar bears (also untrue, BTW) or have cars too big, or haven’t figured out gender equity pay yet, or flood the planet with McDonald’s restaurants. So goes the moral equivocation to piles of human souls.

    As far as overall morals and ethics, once only has to look at the utter disintigration of Western mores and values either going away or not even bothering to defend themselves and the base vulgarity of modern society to see some things never get better and in point of fact get nastier. We don’t need to be pollyannish and wimpy to demonstrate a better persona sometimes, but my goodness when I see cherry faced little girls using language that would make sailors blush and performances in the “arts” that celebrate sadomasochistic behavior and deconstructionist male bashing and paens to multicultural mush, I lose heart quickly. Education certainly has not been made better by heavy public funding and government involvement, for example. We have a cacaphony of people armed with stats and lawyers and ideologies who’re good at defending themselves and making the streets unsafe and public life miserable. But that’s not a good society.

    I think “nothing new under the Sun” was said by someone in the Bible…..

  61. Rich Says:

    I disagree. I’m an admitted moral relativist, but So I should probably that Morality is relative to the age, but I think the empowerment of women, no slavery, multiculturalism etc. are all good things. Bigotry is on the out.. huzzah!

    Multiculturalism and Globalization may both be population memetics.

    *ducks rotten fruit*

  62. JOR Says:

    “I think we err if we think that philosophy or material progress and increased on-demand round-the-clock awareness of things has made us much better.”

    We are better in many, many ways. Not so much in others.
    “Remember too that while all ages have their demons, only in the modern world woudl an Attila have been lauded in the press.”

    This is just not true. Only in the modern world would there be some disapproval of Attila’s brutality and vandalism among the Huns themselves.

    “We actually had that. His name was Joseph Stalin. The press in America had its fifth column (and I once had a professor of social studies who said Stalin was evil BUT he was a necessary evil to “whip” certain groups into the Modern Era, etc) that found little wrong in the early years of Stalin and Mao. The facts of their horror were known then. No one was taken aback or shocked.”

    ‘No-one’ is an extreme stretch, and you know it. Besides, sacrificing the few for the good of the many, or for some nebulous higher purpose, is classic conservatism. Insofar as radicals offered justification for the regimes of Stalin, Mao, etc. they started to sound like the conservatives had always sounded when defending some massacre or policy of oppression. They attached their ideals to princes, and to ‘results’, with the predictable consequence of forgetting themselves.

    “Secularists may have thought Stalin a “bad guy” but always qualified this measure by pointing out deficiencies in America like farm degredation, racism, and other stretch comparatives.”

    So what? It’s a red herring in most cases (saying America is almost as bad, or just as bad, or worse than the Soviet Union doesn’t acquit the Soviet Union, even if it’s true), but even so sometimes it’s valuable to have someone remind you that you are not the definition of virtue – any one of us can fall as far as Stalin, if we forget ourselves. That seems more important to keep in mind than tribal score keeping.

    “As far as overall morals and ethics, once only has to look at the utter disintigration of Western mores and values either going away or not even bothering to defend themselves and the base vulgarity of modern society to see some things never get better and in point of fact get nastier. We don’t need to be pollyannish and wimpy to demonstrate a better persona sometimes, but my goodness when I see cherry faced little girls using language that would make sailors blush and performances in the “arts” that celebrate sadomasochistic behavior and deconstructionist male bashing and paens to multicultural mush, I lose heart quickly.”

    I don’t think swearing is immoral, necessarily, and I don’t have a problem with multiculturalism, properly understood. In any case the chastity and courtesy of the good old days – pick any particular era – is almost always overstated or balanced by other vices that we do not share, at least to the same degree.

    “Education certainly has not been made better by heavy public funding and government involvement, for example.”

    Well, sure. That’s something that puts pressure in the wrong direction. But what that says to me is that whatever it is we’re doing right, we must be doing very well.

    “We have a cacaphony of people armed with stats and lawyers and ideologies who’re good at defending themselves and making the streets unsafe and public life miserable. But that’s not a good society.”

    I agree. Cops are ruining this country.

  63. Rich Says:

    I Still think it’s a virus:

    http://web.mac.com/somelikeitshot/Philip_Bloom/Clips.html#3

  64. JOR Says:

    The urge to label certain ideas ‘viruses’ is exactly what demolishes the claim that memetics simply aims to be a unifying shorthand for psychology, dialcetcics, rhetoric, etc.

  65. JOR Says:

    dialectics, not dialcetcics

  66. Rich Says:

    The more esoteric or abstract things become, the harder they can become to understand. Qualia would be another example. Memetics would seem to have descriptive value. I can make a case for the theism’s irrational bigotry against homosexuals for example. What is the prevailing scientific explanation otherwise?

  67. beastrabban Says:

    Hi Rich, JOR and Wakefield – thanks for your comments.

    Regarding the difference between medieval attitudes and those of today towards acts of oppression and mass violence, I think there generally has been an improvement. The medieval aristocracy were an hereditary military caste to whom warfare really was a way of life. There is a 12th century Old French poem which is very explicit about its author’s enjoyment of war, containing some extremely bloodthirstly passages about the sight of mangled bodies on the battlefield.

    However, this is balanced by some far more humane attitudes towards violence and warfare. During the 10th and 11th centuries the Church attempted to limit such aristocratic violence, in an attempt to protect civilians, by outlawing warfare from Sunday to Wednesday. Moreover, commentators and chroniclers of the wars in the Middle Ages do describe with utter horror attacks on civilians and churches by the armies involved. As for dissent from such violence, again this did occur in the Middle Ages. For example, one French monk, when offered a post by William of Normandy after his conquest of England in 1066, refused, stating that the Norman conquest of England was nothing but theft. The Wendish Crusades are another example where the Church stepped in to regulate the violence and prevent the massacre of innocents.

    As for the apologists for tyrannical regimes such as those of the former Communist block, it’s fair to say that the vast majority of Western Socialists didn’t approve of the vicious repression and horror practised by these regimes. Nevertheless, there is indeed a real problem in that members of the far Left did loudly support them and continue to support repressive regimes like them today. For example, Pluto Press last year published a book We Are Hizbollah , an anthology of writing from the Lebanese radical Islamist party. In Britain, the Respect Party, led by the former British Labour MP George Galloway led a protest against the invasion of Iraq under a banner ‘We are Hizbollah’ with members and supporters of that party. Ken Livingstone, the current Lord Mayor of London, caused a bit of controversy a few weeks ago by hosting an address by the radical Egyptian Muslim cleric al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi is a fire-breathing mullah with a particularly splenetic hatred of homosexuals. He’s made a number of speeches which give extremely graphic, hate-filled descriptions of the varied and imaginative ways they should be killed. Livingstone, on the other hand, ha always been very pro-Gay, and during his leadership of the now abolished Greater London Council in the 1970s and 1980s was noted for his advocacy of gay rights and funding gay organisations and events. His support for gay rights strongly contrasts with his willingness to host Qaradawi in London, and his support for Qaradawi in a letter he had published in the British satirical magazine Private Eye a few weeks ago.

    I suspect this willingness to support regimes hostile to the West, including Islamic clerical fascist regimes whose basis in religion would be loudly denounced in a Western party, comes from the deep alienation some members of the far Left seem to feel towards their own countries and political system. Convinced that capitalism and the traditional western political system is innately corrupt and the source of global oppression, some – but not all – members of the far Left have turned to support oppressive regimes like those of the Communist block and now radical Islam. My own feeling is that this bizarre, contradictory situation is created by a sincere, desire for an internationally just order, and an acute awareness of the failings of the Western system, driven to such an extreme that it motivates oppression and tyranny. However, the desire for justice and a better moral order is the product of western humanitarianism pushed and distorted into a hatred of the very system which produced it.

  68. beastrabban Says:

    Rich, regarding your statement I can make a case for the theism’s irrational bigotry against homosexuals for example. and the following query What is the prevailing scientific explanation otherwise?, this opens a very wide field of debate. Firstly, while you could argue that the traditional theist prohibition on homosexuality is irrational, this would not in itself prove the existence of memes. Rather one could invert the argument, and say that the belief that homosexuality is acceptable is a meme. From the Middle Ages until the 1960s, the view that homosexuality was abnormal and required either punishment or medical treatment was regarded as simple commonsense. In Plato’s The Laws , there is a section dealing with the issue of homosexuality, which opens with one of the characters stating that they all know homosexuality is wrong, before asking on what basis homosexuality can be proved to be wrong. The condemnation of homosexuality is assumed to be correct, and precedes the arguments used to ground this condemnation. In this instance, the attitude precedes the ‘meme’. On the other hand, the modern acceptance of homosexuality is based, for the most part, on a set of assumptions about human sexual freedom that previous centuries would have considered to be counterintuitive and which, it could be argued, have been largely taken over as part of a general process of liberalisation without necessarily being critically examined by those who have adopted it. In this case, the acceptance of homosexuality is the irrational meme, spread by people uncritically accepting a general point of view.

    One could further argue that just because an alternative explanation for a phenomenon – in this case theistic opposition to homosexuality – is not available, this does not mean that any supposedly scientific explanation should be accepted. Memes don’t satisfactorily explain theist opposition to homosexuality. Indeed, one could equally suggest alternative sociological or socio-economic models which would serve just as well. Thus as an explanation for the persistence of sociological traits, memes should be rejected.

    Secondly, science actually has a difficult time explaining homosexuality itself. Homosexuals, by their nature, have a greater tendency than heterosexuals not to reproduce, and so, according to a crude interpretation of Darwinism, should be expected to die out. The fact that it still persists has led to a number of different theories being posited to explain it, such as that it is merely the expression of genetic tendencies which may exist in relatives which are otherwise unaffected, or that it arose far back in the pre-human past to provide the dominant male with a group of subordinates who would assist him without competing with him for possession of the females, equally have strong drawbacks. There are thus real problems in scientific explanation for human homosexuality at least.

  69. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    This is just not true. Only in the modern world would there be some disapproval of Attila’s brutality and vandalism among the Huns themselves.

    THAT would depend on what his exact ideology was. Gratuitous violence for the sake of gore impresses few. He would have to couch it in better terms than mere conquest over resources, of course. People are surprised that certain words as well as certain actions are ancient in history.

    AS to virtue–yes, the Victorian Era, and others, was oversated and had its own clutter and confusions and quaint issues. My fathers day is remembered warmly even though the 40s were not all good in America with Segregation and poverty, etc. Cursing is not necessarily evil per se but creates a vile and unproductive atmosphere and shows a boorish contmept for real thought. It is an indicator of frustration and is a creature of habit.

    But on the other hand, it was rare for kids to disappaear and get raped and dismembered just for making the error of going to the five and dime store over at Mr. Bentons down the street 200 yeards from the house.
    These things happened–there is the horrific story of Black Dahlia. But the revelations of these things was not so trumpeted as today.

    Materially of course we are far better off. No one argues against that, and in fact that is to some environmentalists the PRECISE bane of human pressures on the planet. Capitalism in Dickens day was said to cause poverty and malnourished starvlings living in tenement housing and be full of stuffy Scrogges shooing kids away from the Exchange House.

    Today it is blamed for the malady of “AFFLUENZA” and threatens the ecosphere.

    Or so I’m told.

    Back to the “humane” issue, keep in mind that even in the Mid Ages with those exception of clergy not blessing certain campaigns, from then until now the Church has been in the forefront of human rights campaigns and were among the early reformers on a variety of issues, slavery and poverty included. The secular penchant for getting involved in such issues in some technocratic way is far more recent comparitively, and to boot, is questionable as to its efficiency and affact on human well being. But that is another issue.

    It is the Christian theology and conception of human specialness, which Darwinian descent denies, that has served as the foundation for moral insights that stand above and apart from context for the everyman. It can be argued this was in fact the core foundation of British Common Law, which translated to the other form here in the USA.

    As to your commentary on Western Values, I think you missed my point about other eras, even though I agree in part about rosy glasses and nostalgia about the past. But MY point was WESTERN values, not some particular age, are in danger per se against threats from Islam and forms of seculaism that seek to cut us off from our roots. Christopher Hitchens, the most polite far lefists one can find in a cafe without shouting, has said (see BRs comments above) that the Left’s vitrole against the West, and the Modern Secular West (even!) is so powerful they cannot even diegn to bring themselves to its defense. This was the end for him for the Far Left.

    A society that cannot and will not even defend itself and moves into radical envirospeak and multicultural yick yack and holds that all ideas are equal and all human achievement is equal and those cultures that put bones in noses are on par with those that put men on the moon and cure cancer has LOST its sales pitch about, as you say, material progress making things and men better.

    If its not defended, its not been thought through all the way.

  70. Wakefield Tolbert Says:

    JOR–

    Keep in mind what BR said also: Nevertheless, there is indeed a real problem in that members of the far Left did loudly support them and continue to support repressive regimes like them today.

    Western Socialists, its true, were horrified once the facts were out, but it was not always the radicals but highly educated and well informed people who not only denied that such horrors took place, but made ideological sales pitches as to why this was historically necessariy to purge certain elements.

    see for example Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims

    Media elites, business people, ideologues, poets, writers, professors, and numerous other high profile figures and not a few Hollywood stars, according to Hollander and Harvard historian Richard Pipes, have found out that in the modern world wealth alone is not enough to separate you from the everyman these days, and thus ideology alone is now the province of being above other members of the human race. Thus the “pilgrims” to NIcaragua, Cuba before , Guatamala, and South Africa who made pitches for Stalinist ideology of the semi-watered down variety and argued that the USSRs support and armimg of such repressive situations (or as with S. Africa, guerrilla warriors) was necessay and a transitional period we need to “better understand” but not “overreact” to despite the suffering. Obviously these regimes were less than perfect before they got radicalized. Some were evil. But it didn’t help matters that it was Marxian warlords in some of these cases and not modern incantations of Thomas Jefferson doing the killing and maiming and getting support from Leftists who downplayed the horror (and still defend it today in large part) as being a “progressive” movement of world proportions to outcase the authoritarian regimes. History is not that simple.

    The political pilgrims can be any flavor but those from the Left in particular failed to acknowledge even today many of their brutal errors and the human suffering done in the name of getting rid of evil men only to replace it with something far worse both locally and in light of the Cold War situation and balances of power. The so called “peace movement” also had well meaning people who’d not be averse to even using bible passages but messed up on seeing good intentions in communism and downplaying the dire ideological differences, etc.

  71. Rich Says:

    Science doesn’t prove anything, but I might offer a hypothesis with explanatory power. With regard to the attitude predating the meme, it could well have existed in some proto-Christianity / common ancestor. It would serve the same purpose. I don’t see how acceptence of homosexuality would be a meme any more than accepting women as equals or people of different colour. Look at babies, they don’t care. But we teach hate at a young age.

  72. JOR Says:

    “Memetics would seem to have descriptive value.”

    No it wouldn’t. It’s the atheist version of presuppositional apologetics – its main purpose seems to be to allow its users to shunt away any disagreement as the product of some kind of psychological depravity, rather than engaging in dialogue and argument.

    “I can make a case for the theism’s irrational bigotry against homosexuals for example. What is the prevailing scientific explanation otherwise?”

    We already have a satisfactory explanation: religions tell people to adopt certain attitudes, and sometimes they do. Sometimes they do so for bad reasons. If you want more detail, you need to examine the particular cases more closely. Maybe that’s not ‘scientific’, but so what? Everyone was perfectly capable of saying and doing all this before memetics, and memetics adds nothing honest to the intellectual toolbox.

  73. Rich Says:

    “We already have a satisfactory explanation: religions tell people to adopt certain attitudes, and sometimes they do”

    Bit harsh to claim lack of insight / mechanism and then offer this “stuff does stuff” reasoning.

    Why do “eligions tell people to adopt certain attitudes”?

  74. JOR Says:

    They might have any number of reasons for doing so.

  75. Rich Says:

    Insightful!

  76. JOR Says:

    If you want more specific answers, you’ll have to ask more specific questions.

  77. Rich Says:

    No, I understand. memes are an intellectual esoteric wank-fest. “They might have any number of reasons for doing so.” is where the science is at.

  78. Rich Says:

    This seems relevant:

  79. JOR Says:

    ““They might have any number of reasons for doing so.” is where the science is at.”

    I never said anything about it being science. Memetics as I see can do one of three things: deny that that statement is true, in which case it is false; admit that it is true but abstract away from it, attempting to deal with ideas in isolation from reason, in which case it is like trying to do history without saying anything about past events; or admit it but insist that reason is only an instance of some kind of biological or neurological imperative, in which case it is simply some kind of sociobiology (which is, whatever one thinks of it, nothing new).

    Occam’s razor tells us that, ceterus paribus, the simplest explanations are preferred. Other things aren’t always equal. Furthermore, the chart you linked to is irrelevant to memetics, and even as a defense of atheism it commits a pretty obvious category error.

  80. Rich Says:

    I postulated a tree of faith, like a tree of life: there one arm was, with clades and all.

    One glaring difference was the convergence of eastern rites / easterm orthodoxy.

    Lateral Meme Transfer?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horizontal_gene_transfer

    I wanted to frame the discussion around looking for a causal mechanism for theism’s bigotry towards homosexuals. Sadly this thread is not the place. They might have any number of reasons why.

  81. JOR Says:

    “I postulated a tree of faith, like a tree of life: there one arm was, with clades and all.”

    Sure you can postulate such a tree. And there is such a tree, in a manner of speaking. We certainly don’t need memes to see that. And it certainly doesn’t tell us anything about which religious beliefs are correct.

    “I wanted to frame the discussion around looking for a causal mechanism for theism’s bigotry towards homosexuals.”

    The causal mechanism is that (some forms of) theism see homosexuality as immoral, harmful, gross, or any combination of these. If you’re looking for ‘deeper’ reasons then you’re probably just doing biology, and whether this is helpful or not, it has nothing to do with memes.

  82. Rich Says:

    It might be to do with biology for any number of reasons.

  83. JOR Says:

    If it is biology, then it is biology. It is not memes. The fact that memes, which are essentially just a bad analogy, are being appealed to in the first place is evidence that biology’s explanatory power does not extend very far over culture.

  84. Rich Says:

    You might be wrong for any number of reasons. Biology is “meta”. It could share common elements with other things. Physics is physics..until it’s chemistry..which is chemistry… until its biology.

  85. JOR Says:

    I’m right for a number of reasons. To the extent that it is helpful to make analogies to biology to understand social phenomenon, we were capable of doing so long before memes. For memes to amount to much of anything at all, it’d have to be an eliminativist project, rather than metaintellectual (this would be psychology). And then it’d just amount to something false.

  86. Rich Says:

    You should definitely be a scientist, JOR. The way you have your conclusions before experimentation is beautiful to behold, for a number of reasons.

  87. beastrabban Says:

    Rich, there are a number of problems with that ‘tree of ideas’. Firstly, JOR’s right: you don’t need memes to construct such a tree. Memes are only one interpretation of such trees, and not the best interpretation either.

    There are a number of points at which the meme argument breaks down. It doesn’t say anything about the truth or otherwise of the ideology, but if consistently applied acts against all ideologies. The construction of ideological systems is an act by conscious agents, rather than the unconscious process of random mutation and selection. Secondly, as we’ve seen, memes themselves are incoherent – they can apply to everything for very minor cultural motifs like how one wear’s one’s baseball cap, to huge globalising ideologies. As a term, they’re immensely imprecise.

    Also the supposed contrast between complicated Christianity and uncomplicated atheism is deeply misleading. Unless one defines atheism as simply being a fideistic lack of belief in any god, without any underlying intellectual or emotional reason, there is no straight line and equivalence between ancient and modern atheism. Yes, atheists do use some of the arguments from antiquity against the existence of God. However, these have been reshaped and restated over the centuries in line with cultural changes generally. Moreover, some evangelical atheists are keen to divide atheism into different varieties, so James Randi talks about there being Naturalists, Physicalists, Humanists and so on. Now pretty much all of these are essentially the same thing, though clearly a Humanist will have a different conception of morality than a Nietzschean Nihilist. So there is ideological differentiation and branching there. However my guess is that most atheists would object very strongly to atheism being described as a meme, especially as Dawkins’ argument about God being a cultural virus is that such cultural viruses infect the mind with false beliefs.

    Regarding the whole issue of religion and homosexuality, this is part of wider cultural conceptions regarding gender identity, and informed by class ideologies, as well as other attitudes regarding what is acceptable and unacceptable sexuality. Religion can be only part of public acceptance or rejection of homosexuality. Also, some religions also permit it. For example, in some Polynesian pantheons there is a god of gay love affairs. The attitude towards homosexuality is somewhat more complicated than a single religious meme providing for its prohibition.

  88. Rich Says:

    ” doesn’t say anything about the truth or otherwise of the ideology, but if consistently applied acts against all ideologies.”

    Eh? If it offers reproductive advantage to its host’s, it prospers.

    You conflte atheim and morality at some point. Not the same. And i wish theists would keep suggesting it is.

    “However my guess is that most atheists would object very strongly to atheism being described as a meme” – We’re not on the same page. Is not having a cold a disease?

    “The construction of ideological systems is an act by conscious agents, rather than the unconscious process of random mutation and selection.”

    This is unsupported. The memetic mutation would seem tt come from the host, obviously, as they are the vectors.

    WRT Atheism, it’s always been lack of evidence. We don’t need a positive argument *for* atheism. Its the default state until a positive case for a creator is made.

    ” in some Polynesian pantheons there is a god of gay love affairs. ” – and have they prospered? Did the offer a reproductive advantage to that memetic strain? What do you think the correlation is between bigotry against gays and ‘market share’ of religion?

  89. beastrabban Says:

    Rich, the comments you make regarding the validity of meme theory actually don’t support it, for a variety of reasons.

    Let’s take a few of your comments. You state If it offers reproductive advantage to its host’s, it prospers. as if this demonstrates that meme theory has a relationship of the truth content of the cultural traits whose proliferation it attempt to describe. Yet this statement that ‘what is good, is what enables an organism to survive’, really doesn’t have any bearing at all on the truthful nature of the belief in question. Nietzsche held exactly the same view of morality and belief. Good was only that which benefited an individual. But Nietzsche was a defiant Nihilist, who did not believe in a transcendent morality. Indeed, what can benefit an individual isn’t necessarily true. Some individuals have been saved from despair or suicide by a belief in the truth of a particular ideology. For example, a person, despairing of the perceived injustice of modern, capitalist society may turn to Marxism. A belief in Marxism is therefore good for them, but clearly Marxism itself isn’t true. One could probably extend it to whole societies. At the moment the Swiss government is worried about the rise in Creationism in Swiss society, with about a third of the population now belonging to forms of evangelical Christianity that strongly endorses a literal view of the truth of Genesis. This has been considered due to the fact that some Swiss believe that Darwinism’s materialism is undermining meaning and morality in Swiss society. If they’re right, and this is so, and meaning and morality can be restored through the belief in the literal truth of the Creation account in Genesis, then by your definition of whatever confers a benefit is true, Creationism is also true, regardless of whether it is factually correct. Moreover, the whole point of Dawkins application of cultural virus theory to religion comes from his conviction that religion doesn’t convey any survival advantage whatsoever.

    “However my guess is that most atheists would object very strongly to atheism being described as a meme” – We’re not on the same page. Is not having a cold a disease? This is special pleading. Memes, by definition, are ideas, and all ideas, under meme theory, are spread in an analogous method to gene proliferation. Now atheism is based on a set of ideas, which are passed from mind to mind. These ideas are sorted, with some receiving more attention, while others are less emphasised are abandoned in the same way that genes supposedly compete for a place in the chromosome. Remember that Nicholas Humphries wrote to Dawkins after he had a read Dawkins’ account of meme theory, stating ‘You have parasitised my mind.’ Despite the fact that Dawkins, Dennett and co have gone on to deny that memes are a meme, this is most definitely special pleading.

    This is unsupported. The memetic mutation would seem tt come from the host, obviously, as they are the vectors.
    Nope. For Dennett and Blackmore, consciousness arises from the process of the brain sorting memes. Memes are the basic units prior to consciousness. Thus consciousness is not involved in their processing.

    WRT Atheism, it’s always been lack of evidence. We don’t need a positive argument *for* atheism. Its the default state until a positive case for a creator is made. No. Most societies have been theist until very recently, and there are very good arguments for theism. Atheism is not the default state, and the burden of proof is on the atheist to provide an argument against theism.

    ” in some Polynesian pantheons there is a god of gay love affairs. ” – and have they prospered? Did the offer a reproductive advantage to that memetic strain? What do you think the correlation is between bigotry against gays and ‘market share’ of religion? Problematic statement. This assumes that memes must compete in a broad, interconnected environment. Yet Polynesia was a society of isolated islands, so direct competition was constrained. What one can say is that the belief in a divine sanction for homosexual behaviour formed a valid basis for a particular Polynesian cultural system, if we adopt the position of the anthropologist Franz Boas that all cultural systems are perfect in themselves and may not be critiqued from outside.

    Besides, according to your first premise, that which is good, is that which allows an organism to prosper. If a bias against homosexuality has allowed those societies which contain it to prosper, then according to your dictum, this prohibition of homosexuality, whether irrational or not, is good.

    Simply put, Rich, memes aren’t a good explanation for the proliferation of ideas nor against religion. In my opinion they serve only as a pseudo-scientific buttress for atheist belief that religion must, by its nature, be irrational. And as numerous scientists have pointed out that memes don’t act like viruses, regardless of any claims about the development of ideological systems from each other, this persistent belief in memes must be abandoned as an irrational prejudice. Even the atheists on the Dawkins Forum don’t take memes seriously.

    Anyway, you’re not the only person to be passionately committed to memes against all the evidence, so I’ll shall have to write another blogpost specifically about them.

  90. Rich Says:

    “No. Most societies have been theist until very recently, and there are very good arguments for theism. Atheism is not the default state, and the burden of proof is on the atheist to provide an argument against theism.”

    Kids aren’t born theist with knowledge of the creator. Red Herring.

    Homosexuality is neither good nor bad for humanity, but bad for the meme. One of the mechanisms they employ is “outbreed”, the best way to foster this is a species who’s sexuality is a continuum is to…

  91. beastrabban Says:

    Kids aren’t born theist with knowledge of the creator. Red Herring.
    Questionable statement, Rich. Recent research does indeed suggest that children do have an innately dualist conception of the world, which distinguishes between ‘self’ and matter. This got the militantly atheist paediatrician Nick Humphries very bothered when he wrote about it in the on-line science magazine At the Edge . Furthermore, according to biogenetic structuralism, religious experience and the potential for it is coded into the human brain. Thus science does indeed bear out Calvin’s and Cicero’s statement that humans possess an innate ‘sensus divinitatis’, an a priori idea of the holy.

    Homosexuality is neither good nor bad for humanity, but bad for the meme. One of the mechanisms they employ is “outbreed”, the best way to foster this is a species who’s sexuality is a continuum is to…

    That’s a confused argument. Firstly, it assumes that homosexuality must be bad for the meme. This, however, is an assumption, not a fact. The problem is that there were successful religions which had no particular animus towards homosexuality. The ancient Greeks were one, and the legend of Zeus taking the beautiful boy Ganymede up to Olympus to be his cupbearer reflected prevailing positive attitudes towards homosexuality by the Greek aristocracy. I’ve got a feeling it also turned up in Orphic mysticism as a symbol of the human soul rising up to the embrace of the divine.

    As for memes encouraging humans to outbreed in order to outcompete the memetic disadvantage posed by homosexuality, this is another non sequitur. More people automatically means more homosexuals, assuming that homosexuality is something innate. Or if you mean that the meme against homosexuality survives by suppressing cultural homosexuality, you’ve done no more than state the very obvious, and you don’t need memetics to do that.

    Memes don’t actually stand up, Rich. They don’t explain anything and are subject to very strong conceptual flaws. They’re a very, very weak argument against religion or indeed against anything.

  92. Rich Says:

    Your tail wags your dog. If I may, in no particular order.

    You fail to recognize human sexuality as a continuum, one end of which is bad for childbirth. The concept of homosexuality is persecuted to force reproductive behaviour. You can be gay and have kids.

    Gay friendly / neutral religions. How they doing now?

    You’ve made the leap from dualism to religion.

    “religious experience and the potential for it is coded into the human brain.” as we agree Ufology can be a religion. and lots of folks have that experience too. Funny how they become contextualized based on the faith of the person experiencing them. Predisposition or not doesn’t mean faith is real. We have other *negative* predispositions also. Doesn’t make them right.

  93. beastrabban Says:

    Okay, Rich, let’s deal with your comments.

    You fail to recognize human sexuality as a continuum, one end of which is bad for childbirth. The concept of homosexuality is persecuted to force reproductive behaviour. You can be gay and have kids.

    Actually, I’ve never heard anyone argue that human sexuality was a continuum. I’ve heard people argue that there are in fact three genders – male, female and interesex/transexual, and five sexes, and that sexuality is culturally constructed. But as I said, I haven’t come across anyone who argued before that it was a continuum.

    As for homosexuality being discouraged to force reproductive behaviour, again there are several issues there, but one of the functions of religion is to regulate sexuality generally.

    Gay friendly / neutral religions. How they doing now? Good question – the mood is changing in cultures that previously have been very receptive to homosexuality.

    Since homosexuality and religion seems to be an important issue, I’ll devote a whole blog article to it later.

    You’ve made the leap from dualism to religion. So did the early theorists of the origin of religion and Nick Humphries today. The innate dualism in humans is usually seen as part of a general animist tendency inherent in human nature, which leads to religion and notions of transcendent deities, or is intimately related to belief in transcendent, immaterial others, even if it does not directly lead to it.

    Predisposition or not doesn’t mean faith is real. We have other *negative* predispositions also. Doesn’t make them right.

    Nope, and much more could be said about UFO beliefs and the nature of mysticism. Again, it would require a whole blog article. However, my whole point is that Naturalistic attempts to explain religion away have failed, beliefs about UFOs not withstanding.

  94. Ilíon Says:

    BR: Now Galileo’s and Newton’s theories clearly are true, and Dawkins’ description of them as memes clearly has acted to deny their validity. …

    Actually, and quite irrespective of the ‘memes’ deal, neither theory is actually true.

    There is more to Galileo than “the earth orbits the sun.” For instance, part of Galileo’s theory is that earth’s orbit is a circle, which is literally false, as the orbit is eliptical.

    Similarly, Newton’s theories, being more complex (and more comprehensive) than Galileo’s, have even more room for error. It was realized long before Einstein that Newtonian mechanics was incorrect — and yet, it’s *useful* even now. But it is incorrect, it is literally false.

    Contrary to what is commonly said, Einstein’s theory doesn’t *extend* Newton’s theory, it replaces it (which fact says nothing about whether Einstein’s theory is correct in all its parts).

  95. Ilíon Says:

    BR: … As for the Gospels not uttering a word in praise of intelligence, this is immaterial, and misses the point of what Jesus was actually doing …

    The claim is also quite literally false.

    As one example: *WHY* were the Bereans praised as “more noble” than the Thessalonians? Because, with an open-mindedness, they critically examined Paul’s claims and assertions — because they neither knee-jerk rejected what he was preaching, nor mindlessly/uncritically accepted it.

  96. Biscuitnapper Says:

    Once again, you’ve demonstrated that the issue of religion is much more complicated than tends to be appreciated from a seclar perspective. There’s not much I can directly reply to, but once again, this has shown (in a much clearer way than I ever could) what I think is a major problem in the debate about God/religion and that is the sheer volume of willful ignorance.

    Myths are an intrinsic part of the way humans communicate with each other, and I find it interesting how even today, we are unwilling to separate our ‘mythology’ (eg what we hold as true within a group as opposed to what could be considered ‘objectively’ true) from ‘reality’, which leads to so much regurgitation and circular arguments instead of genuine debate.

  97. beastrabban Says:

    The nature of mythology is indeed really complicated and interesting, as you said, Biscuitnapper. I suspect that there are an awful lot of secular narratives that could be considered ‘mythological’ in the sense that they express and support a particular view of the world, such as some of the stories circulating about the exploits of particular celebrities regardless of whether or not they actually did them, or, at a slightly more serious level, about the activities of various corporations or politicians.

    You’re also right about communication through story and narrative being one of the fundamental features of human nature. A lot of science writers have touched on it, regardless of their own religious beliefs or lack of them.

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