Wednesday, September 26, 2007 63 Comments

How Dawkins got pwned (part 1)

Richard Dawkins recently wrote a book called The God Delusion. You've probably heard of it.

Professor Dawkins is a great scientist and one of my favorite writers. And I have no quarrel at all with his argument. I was raised as a scientific atheist, and I've never seen the slightest reason to think otherwise. These days I prefer the word "nontheist" - for reasons which will shortly be clear - but there's no substantive difference at all. Except in the context of role-playing games, I have no interest whatsoever in gods, goddesses, angels, devils, dryads, water elementals, or any such presumed metaphysical being.

Nonetheless, it's my sad duty to inform the world that Professor Dawkins has been pwned. Perhaps you're over 30 and you're unfamiliar with this curious new word. As La Wik puts it:
The word "pwn" remains in use as Internet social-culture slang meaning: to take unauthorized control of someone else or something belonging to someone else by exploiting a vulnerability.
How could such a learned and wise mind exhibit an exploitable vulnerability? And who - or what - has taken unauthorized control over Professor Dawkins? The aliens? The CIA? The Jews? The mind boggles. As well it should. Patience, dear reader. All will become clear.

Professor Dawkins' explanation of religion, with which I agree completely, is that religion is a memeplex built around a central delusion, the God meme - an entirely unsubstantiated proposition. Religion exists because this memeplex is adaptive. This explanation is both necessary and sufficient. It is also parsimonious, a la Occam's razor. It may not be simple, but it's a heck of a lot simpler than "God."

(I dislike the word "meme" and the complex of terminology that's grown up around it, mainly because (a) the word has a dorky sound, and (b) it means the same thing as "idea." However, in deference to Professor Dawkins and his numerous acolytes, I'll use it for this discussion.)

In Darwinian terms, Professor Dawkins' main point is that the adaptive interests of religion - or of any other memeplex - are not the same as the adaptive interests of its host. As a celibate priest, for example, you are helping Christianity to be fruitful and multiply. It's performing no such service for you.

Biologists have a word for this: parasitism. Probably because he wants to be nice, Professor Dawkins tries not to use the p-word. But he's clearly thinking it.

The God delusion is a parasitic meme because, being alien to reason, it does not serve the interests of the host. Furthermore, some of the memeplexes which include it - or "religions" - include far more pernicious memes, such as suicide bombing, which are lethal both to the host and anyone within its blast radius. The case would seem to be closed.

But immunology is tricky. After all, if Professor Dawkins is right, anyone who believes in God is most certainly pwned - that is, infected by a parasitic religious memeplex. This category includes some of the smartest people in the world today. Intelligence is certainly no barrier to memetic infection. Worse, there have clearly been periods of civilized history in which everyone was infected by this parasite. The things are dangerous, there is no doubt.

Therefore, without disputing Professor Dawkins' Darwinian conclusion, I think it's prudent to step back a little, and attack the problem with a slightly broader and more careful approach.

The God Delusion is what immunologists might call a specific immune response. Professor Dawkins notes that religion is alien to the reasoning mind. He notes that it reproduces and evolves. He sees that similar phenomena have caused many problems in the past and continue to do so in the present. He identifies a common feature of these problems, the God meme, and churns out antibodies to it.

This process is not infallible. Suppose, for example, you note that a patient is ill and can't eat. You take a biopsy of his guts and find that they're full of - bacteria! Bacteria are clearly not human. They're a well-known cause of disease. So the obvious problem is that the patient has a bacterial infection, and you prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics. Meanwhile, the poor fellow is dying of colon cancer, and you're trying to eradicate his intestinal flora.

Biological immune systems make all kinds of mistakes. Presumably the same is true of memetic immunology. After all, what was the Inquisition thinking? They thought of heresy exactly the same way Professor Dawkins thinks of religion: as a sort of mental virus, whose eradication, while unavoidably painful, would bring peace and sanity.

In memetic immunology, it's often very difficult to distinguish parasite from counterparasite. When we see two populations of memes in conflict, we know both cannot be healthy, because a healthy meme is true by definition and the truth cannot conflict with itself. However, we might very well be watching two parasites competing with each other. They will certainly both claim to represent truth, justice and the American way.

So I think it might be worthwhile to attack the question from another angle, using the analogy of a generalized immune response. Rather than asking ourselves whether specific traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, are parasitic, we can focus on the problem of parasitic memeplexes as a whole.

If Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, turn up on this screen, perhaps we'll want to point some T-cells at them. But a generalized approach will also detect any other parasitic memeplexes we may be infected with. After all, the God delusion isn't the only delusion in the world.

One way to approach generalized memetic immunology is to design a generic parasitic memeplex. Avoiding specific details which may confuse us, and focusing on the combination of adaptive success and parasitic morbidity, we can construct design rules for an optimal memetic parasite. We can evaluate potential threats by looking at how well they fit this template, which should be as nasty as possible.

When dealing with actual biological agents, of course, we can work in biosafety labs. The most dangerous viruses, such as smallpox, Ebola, and the 1918 flu, cannot be safely handled without elaborate, multiply redundant containment systems. Some would argue that they cannot be safely handled at all.

With memes and memeplexes, there's none of this. By designing the memeplex, we effectively release it into the wild. Fortunately, UR has a small and discreet audience, which strikes me as very wise and conscientious. I'm sure none of you will be tempted to abuse this dangerous memetic technology, which in the hands of less scrupulous thinkers could easily become a formula for total world domination. Remember, this is only a test.

So our generic parasitic memeplex will be as virulent as possible. It will be highly contagious, highly morbid, and highly persistent. A really ugly bug. Let's focus on these design aspects separately: contagion, morbidity, and persistence.

A contagious memeplex is one that spreads easily. The template may not have to infect everyone in the world - although that's certainly one option. However, for any really significant morbidity, we'll want massive, lemminglike misdirected collective action. This requires mass infection.

There are three general ways to transmit a memetic parasite: parental transmission, educational transmission, and social transmission. Needless to say, our template should be a champ at all of them.

If your parasite can't be transmitted parentally, it's really not much of a parasite. Children learn the basic principles of reality and morality before they are six, and - as the Jesuit proverb goes - anything that can slip in at this age is likely to stick. "Give me the child and I will give you the man." Fortunately, any simple idea, even if it is nonsense, can be transmitted at this age. Unless the template is fundamentally dependent on some meme which children are unlikely to grasp, such as partial differential equations, parental transmission is no problem.

But educational transmission - infection of children and young adults by institutions whose ostensible purpose is to instill universal knowledge and ethics - is the mainstay of any successful memetic parasite. Since these same institutions educate future educators, replication can continue indefinitely.

Over multiple generations, educational transmission outcompetes parental transmission. Changes of religion by executive fiat, for example, are common in European history. In the more recent past, the Allied victors eradicated militarist traditions in Germany and Japan through their control of the educational system. Furthermore, by treating the press as an educational institution, we can create a system of continuing, lifelong reinfection in which parasitic memes are omnipresent. (Of course, it's important to remember that exactly the same techniques can also cure a memetic infection.)

But neither parental nor educational transmission can bootstrap itself from a small initial infection. While most parasitic memes probably originate as mutations of preexisting memes, they can certainly be invented from scratch (unlike genes). And even a mutation has to spread somehow.

Therefore, no memetic parasite is complete without a system for social transmission: informal transmission among adults, following existing social networks.

The first step in designing for social transmission is minimizing preexisting immunity. Nazism, for example, would not be an adaptive meme for a 21st-century parasitic memeplex, because so many prospective hosts have strong negative reactions to Nazism, Nazis, swastikas, etc. Any meme which conflicts with its prospective hosts' present perception of reality or morality is socially maladaptive.

The second step in designing for social transmission is to look at the status structure of social networks, and construct memes that will flow naturally along the usual network direction: from high status to low status.

That is, our parasite should be intellectually fashionable. All the cool people in town should want to get infected. And infection will make them even cooler. They will be the hosts with the most. For example, one common trope in various religious traditions is asceticism: the voluntary renunciation of material comforts. Since this tends to be much easier for those who start out wealthy and comfortable, it's an effective status marker. Any memes that can associate themselves with asceticism gain a clear adaptive advantage.

Our parasite is now optimized for contagion. But is it bad? Is it truly evil and destructive? The most contagious parasitic meme in the world, if all it brings to its hosts and those around them is happiness and prosperity, isn't worth worrying about.

So we need to move on to morbidity, which is a fancy medical word meaning "badness." The key to memetic morbidity is that, for a really nasty parasite, morbidity must be essential to its reproductive cycle. Otherwise, because morbidity is after all nasty, it will probably be maladaptive. Our parasite will be outcompeted by a benign mutation of itself - totally defeating the purpose. D'oh.

Most forms of morbidity involve a political step in the replication process. In other words, they allow the parasite to obtain informal power, which it can use to take over educational institutions, suppress counterparasites and competing parasites, etc, etc. There is no period in the history of any human civilization in which political (including military) power has not been a critical factor in the struggle of ideas. This is not to say that such a level playing field or "marketplace" of memes cannot be created - only that it has not yet been done.

First, a parasitic meme is not even parasitic if it is not delusional. It must contain some assertion which is alien to reason, which no sensible person would independently invent. The "God delusion" - a metaphysical construct, like Russell's teapot, with no basis in reality - is a perfect example.

How can a delusion be, on its own, adaptive? Very easily. A delusion is a perfect organizing principle for any kind of political movement. By accepting some body of nonsensical doxology, you demonstrate your loyalty to the group. The result is cohesive collective action. As we'll see, most forms of parasitic morbidity involve a political step in the replication cycle.

A frequent strategy, for example, is to present the delusion as recondite and counterintuitive, and the truth as simplistic and wrong. This "emperor's new clothes" strategy is a proven recipe for defeating Occam's razor. Who, for example, really understands the Trinity? But if you don't understand the Trinity, aren't you just stupid? Through internal competition, this counterintuitive delusion generates a revolutionary elite deeply steeped in Trinitology. The harder it is to understand the delusion, the more dedicated your cadre will be.

Another good general strategy for high morbidity is antinomianism, the opposition to law. Since the rule of law can be defined in terms of property rights - property is any right that you can own - any meme that opposes property opposes law. It therefore declares continuous and informal transfers of resources to be morally justified. Antinomianism builds political power by providing an easy avenue for punishing enemies and rewarding supporters, all in the service of whatever bogus concept of "justice" our parasite concocts as a replacement for law.

Finally, our parasite will employ a strategy of politicization, insisting that everyone in a society be involved in the contest for political power. Since our memetic parasite is already bound to one or more political factions, politicization leaves no one with the option to ignore it, and simply live their lives. Neutrality is not acceptable. All those who are not actively infected, and who do not openly endorse the parasite, are by definition its enemies. And they will be crushed. The safest thing is to play along, and raise your children in the faith - even if you don't really believe, they will.

High contagion and adaptive morbidity will allow our parasite to spread widely and rise to power, where it can continuously propagate itself through educational institutions. But there is still another problem: persistence. If our parasite does not resist competitors, or succumbs easily to healthy counterparasites, it won't last long and it won't be much of a threat. It should be as hard as possible for hosts to reject the parasite, whether they are replacing it with a competitor or simply returning to reason.

Our first defense against rejection is mere euphoria. It should feel good to be infected. It should improve the host's self-esteem, making them feel like a better, happier person. If they need to make sacrifices for their faith, if they suffer for it, fine. They are doing what's right.

At a certain level, euphoria graduates into full-on anesthesia. Anesthetized hosts can endure horrific suffering, or the moral pain of inflicting suffering on others, in the name of the faith. Did a wolf come into your house and eat your baby? You have been blessed. The wolf is the sacred animal of Rome. Your baby now dwells with the gods of the city. If the wolf comes again, pet him and speak to him sweetly, and at least give him a hamburger or something.

Indiscriminate and total anesthesia constitutes ovinization. An ovinized individual never imagines responding to any kind of threat with any kind of defensive action, certainly not violence. To the ovinized, anything bad that happens is either (a) an accident, or (b) the result of some sin or other moral error. The concept of an "enemy" does not exist.

Needless to say, euphoria, anesthesia and ovinization all greatly inhibit the ability of our hosts to react against their parasite and eject it - and its followers - from their lives. But sometimes this is not enough. Humans, after all, are bipedal apes. They evolved from some very truculent ancestors. Even if they are specialized for civilization - a certain degree of genetic ovinization is almost certainly present in populations which have lived in governed societies for many generations - occasional throwbacks are to be expected.

Therefore, diversionary hysteria is another essential tactic in our parasite's bag of tricks. Hosts who would otherwise be tempted to notice the morbidities of infection, and attribute them to the parasite itself, must be diverted. Either their defensive energies will be directed either toward other symptoms which are in fact not serious, or they will attribute the real problems to other causes which are not in fact significant.

We can kill two birds with one stone by directing our hysteria toward those who reject the parasite, and identifying their efforts to cure it as the cause of the morbidity. This strategy of counterimmunity, in which the infected treat disinfection as if it were contagious - which, of course, it is - has been a staple of memetic parasites throughout the ages.

The goal of a counterimmune strategy - such as the Inquisition - is to eradicate heresy. But this is actually only the simplest approach to counterimmunity. We can get much fancier.

Suppose, for example, our parasite does not try to eradicate counterimmune responses, but in fact tolerates them. However, we make sure the heretical memes are contained and cannot engage in any serious attack on our replicative cycle. That way, we have them where we can see them - under control. How might we accomplish this?

One approach is to maintain a neutered false opposition. This gang of tolerated heretics, against whom our wise philosophers speak out at every opportunity, must be unable to establish a replicative cycle of their own.

For example, the tame heretical memeplex may include a meme which is delusional, and which anyone intelligent is obviously resistant to - thus binding to, and disabling, the dangerous countermemes which would attack our parasite, by blocking the "early adopters" who would otherwise be tempted to consider the heresy. Similarly, it may include unfashionable memes which impair its power of social transmission. And it may be administratively excluded from educational transmission. It is hard to prevent parental transmission, but as we've seen, over time parents will tend to lose the battle against educational institutions, especially if social transmission is also blocked.

An especially effective approach is to treat the heretical memeplex as if it were, in fact, the dominant parasitic meme. Thus, siding with the parasite will be seen as an act of resistance and defiance, a pose which tends to be fashionable. Furthermore, if the delusional strategy is employed, our friendly hosts will be able to identify obvious delusions among the heretics, who will be unfashionable and educationally isolated.

Since parasites mutate, evolve and improve over time, a good choice for a tame heresy may in fact be an old edition of our parasite itself. Normally this would simply be discarded, and not tolerated at all. By definition it is less competitive. However, if we do tolerate it, we can modify it to attract heretics, doubters, and unbelievers of all kinds, keeping them safely neutered. Hosts infected with the latest version of the parasite will treat these stick-in-the-muds as deluded fools who have not yet liberated themselves from these ancient doctrines, and seen the new, brighter light - who, even worse, are working actively to prevent the truth from being born. Clearly, they must be stopped. And so on.

I think at this point we have a pretty good design for a successful memetic parasite. Don't you agree? If not, how do you think the parasite could be improved? (Of course, this sort of "intelligent design" by no means implies that any such beastie was designed by some purposive plan. We are just trying to reverse-engineer the effects of Darwinian selection.)

Now let's compare Professor Dawkins' target, the God delusion, to this ideal parasite.

Forgetting other religions for a moment, Christianity clearly fits the profile. Every one of the strategies observed above has been employed by some Christian sect, some set of believers in the "God delusion," at some point in time.

However, if I may project a little, Professor Dawkins' readers are not concerned about the Anabaptists, the Arians, the Monophysites, the Nestorians, or any such obsolete sect. They are concerned with vintage-2007 American Christian "fundamentalism." If your goal is to solve a problem, the problem must exist in the present tense.

Fundamentalist Christianity - I prefer the term "salvationism," because the belief that only those who are born again in Christ will be saved is essential to almost all "fundamentalist" sects - certainly matches some of the above descriptions.

For example, it is clearly political, and it is clearly using doctrine as an organizing tool. Antinomianism is a little harder to find - salvationists for the most part are, if anything, big believers in law and order. But depriving women of the right to control their bodies counts to some extent, although this right cannot be transferred and thus only attacks enemies, without benefiting supporters. If this isn't morbidity, I don't know what is.

In the contagion department, however, salvationism is curiously lacking. Compared to other successful memetic parasites of the past - for example, Catholicism before the Reformation - its presence in educational institutions is negligible. In fact, under present law, salvationism is entirely barred from the entire mainstream educational system. At present its great ambition seems to be to sabotage the teaching of Darwinian evolution in primary schools, a goal which it has been generally unsuccessful in. And even if they were to succeed in this, I find it almost entirely impossible to see how it could be of any adaptive value to the salvationist memeplex.

Nor is social transmission of any help, because salvationism is incredibly unfashionable. Quick - how many salvationist celebrities can you name? At the average chic dinner party in Manhattan, how many of the guests are likely to be salvationists? How many salvationists are employed by Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Random House, Viking or Knopf? And so on.

So, one might argue, the salvationist meme is a threat, it is just a small threat. It needs to be kept in its place, that's all. Sure, the influence of the God delusion has been steadily decreasing for the last four hundred years. But if we take our eye off it, it might come back! I'm certainly not prepared to dismiss this as absolutely inconceivable.

However, there's another candidate we have to consider.

In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Professor Dawkins describes himself as "a deeply religious non-believer." He calls his belief system "Einsteinian religion," and waxes poetical as follows:
Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: "To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious."
It's easy to see that this statement is not exactly the theory of general relativity. In fact, it appears to have no factual content at all. Hm.

What, exactly, is this "Einsteinian religion?" Did Professor Dawkins invent it? Did Einstein? What else do Einsteinians believe in, besides "beauty and sublimity"? Are there other Einsteinians, or need only distinguished scientists apply? If an Einsteinian were to stoop to anything so mundane as voting, who would he or she vote for?

And how does "Einsteinian religion" stack up against our parasite test? We'll consider these fascinating issues in part 2 of this essay, which will appear next Thursday.

[Please note that I'm on the road and will be more than usually tardy in responding to feedback. However, I will get to it all, hopefully this weekend. I'm especially curious to hear if anyone has any ideas for improving the parasite design.]


Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"Nor is social transmission of any help, because salvationism is incredibly unfashionable."

I think invoking literary dinner guests is entirely beside the point--there is no such thing as universal fashion. Salvationism, as you call it, is extremely fashionable in rather restricted circles--the fact that your readers aren't that familiar with the hierarchy is neither here nor there. (Plus we do know about the Faldwell types, not to mention nutnuts like Cruise.)

To be honest I'm surprise by the Einstein bit in Dawkins--I haven't read it. Einstein had vaguely mystical tendencies--"Man's greatest gift is his sense of wonder", yadda yadda. Freud, at the beginning of Civilisation and its Discontents, has an amusingly snide attack on the 'vast oceanic feeling' (=Oedipus complex, obviously) that supposedly non-religious people admit to.

September 26, 2007 at 2:45 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

The type of "deeply religious non-believer" Dawkins describes himself as being is hardly unique - indeed, I think they are rather numerous, though not nearly as common as people who profess some more conventionally identifiable denomination.

One of the most erudite and interesting people I have known was Prof. Dawkins's co-religionist. He was the descendant of an old New England family whose forbears included a Revolutionary War general. His ancestral religion was, I suppose, Congregational. At some point early in life he rejected this and became, if not a card-carrying Communist, then at least a very close fellow-traveller. He met at college and married a woman of similar beliefs, whose affluent Jewish family were scandalised that their daughter had married outside the tribe. Although they later gave up their Communism - as I recall him telling me, after realizing that it was an ideology unsuited to human nature - they retained the fervent atheism of Karl Marx, and decided to raise their children in a strictly atheistic household. This meant, inter alia, no acknowledgment of either spouse's ancestral religions was made in their family. There was no Christmas tree nor gift-giving nor turkey on Dec. 25th. There were no Easter eggs. There was no Chanukah menorah nor Passover seder. These were discarded as superstitious relics, with all the rigor the Puritans used in extirpating shrines to the saints or maypoles in the time of Cromwell. I cannot imagine how the children must have felt at being deprived of experiences that just about every one of their youthful peers must have shared. Theirs was an austere faith indeed.

After this man died, his family held a sort of memorial service. It began with a sort of wine-and-cheese reception. Those in attendance were given little tags to stick to their clothes, on which to write their names and the connection in which they knew the deceased. After people had socialized for a while the members of his family, as it were, called the meeting to order; then each spoke briefly with reminiscences of the deceased, beginning with his widow, then each of his children, then any friend who wished to say something - rather like 'testifying' at a Quaker meeting. Finally a serving of sweets and coffee was brought out to the buffet, everyone had some, made their farewells, and left. It was the most unusual funeral I can recall attending.

One distinct recollection I took from this experience was of the number of people in attendance whose name-tags indicated their affiliation with the Secular Humanist Society or the Atheist Association. Of course I knew before then that such groups existed, but it had never previously occurred to me just how their activities were organized. It was evident they had members (congregants); regular meetings (services) with speakers (preachers) who presented programs (services). Their associations had officers (clergy), and the associations were grouped into local chapters (parishes) under the umbrella of statewide societies (dioceses) with their officers (chancery) and heads (bishops), and so forth. People representing these bodies occasionally spoke on the broadcast media or wrote letters to newspapers (in other words they proselytized). In other words, their entire pattern of behavior precisely mirrored that of organized religion; their credo, not the Nicene nor the Apostles nor the Athanasian, but a statement of positive faith that there is/are no god(s). This is, of course, no more susceptible of empirical proof than is any other creed or confession. And comes now Prof. Dawkins, to be their apostle Paul, or Augustine, or Aquinas...

September 26, 2007 at 3:41 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 26, 2007 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"hardly unique"

No of course not, I'm just surprised that Dawkins admits to being one.

"In other words, their entire pattern of behavior precisely mirrored that of organized religion;"

I was a bit scornful of the 'Secular Free-Thought Society' at my last campus. If you're a free-thinker, why do you need a society? I thought it should be renamed the 'I Hate Bush and God Society'.

Dawkins himself says he wants to motivate the quiet 'atheist' faithful, in some such terms.

September 26, 2007 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

I was involved in the founding of the Columbia Atheists and Agnostics (since collapsed due to apathy, like most Columbia clubs), and one of the most interesting events we conducted was explicitly parallel to a standard religious event: atheist testimonials.

September 26, 2007 at 6:18 PM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

"ovinization"? Christ, you really were a table-top RPG dork in your youth...

I like this word, and I will adopt it into my own vocabulary.

September 26, 2007 at 6:28 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Re: designing the optimal memeplex

Conversion by the sword is an effective way of spreading a memeplex quickly through an initially hostile population. This works best if the memeplex makes people into better soldiers, as many modern ones do (but also
some older ones--e.g. Cortez and Spanish Catholicism). I suppose this could be viewed as a subtype of "educational propogation:" a relatively small group seizes the levers of power and kills anyone who openly opposes them or their meme. Almost everyone will start paying lip service immediately, and within a generation or two much of the population will be true believers. From that point all three propagation methods will work as you describe.

I'm not sure that modern Universalism does this sort of thing. WWI and WWII might be examples of Universalist conversion-by-the-sword (especially in Germany and Japan), but the modern version is specialized to function within a democratic society, and abhors direct violence. It doesn't need organized violence against its domestic enemies, and so its warfighting modules atrophy.

This gets at what I think is a fundamental problem with your framing. God Delusions are not parasitic. They perform an important function for their host--namely, encouraging group identification so that your society won't be overrun by somebody else's God Delusion.
In modern Europe (post-30 Years' War), this purpose has been served by the various nationalisms--the European strains increased warmaking capability far above anything seen before or since. If Universalism faces a serious challenge in the years to come, I think that nationalism, rather than Salvationism, is where it will come from.

September 26, 2007 at 6:39 PM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

I think, the evolutionary terminology in this article is flawed, as it misses the crucial difference between material and information.

It is (encoded) behavioral patterns, not organisms, that are subject to evolution. For humans, most of our behavioral patterns are learned (either from other humans or from experience); the entire genetic payload of a human fits onto a DVD+R twice, with some space left. Obviously, one's brain carries a lot more information than that. Thus, a celibate priest is doing as good a job of self-propagation as anyone else. It's not that celibacy is helping Christianity at his expense; Christianity is as much a part of what makes up "him" as his blue eyes or lactose sensitivity. Actually, it makes no qualitative difference how behavioral patterns are encoded, be it a DNA sequence or a holy script.

Some behavioral patterns compete for material. This competition is by no means always a zero-sum or negative sum game. But sometimes it is. This is when we talk about predation and parasitic behavior. The difference between the two is the following:
* Predation is successful, if the victim is not able to afford effective defensive measures.
* Parasitism is successful, if it would cost the victim more to implement effective defensive measures than to tolerate the loss of material to the parasite.

There are, of course, mutually beneficial interactions between encoded behavioral patterns that are mutually exclusive for the same heap of material, when they both gain material in the process. For example, grapes and birds do this: vines give birds high-energy fruit (grapes), birds provide seeding service in return. The uniformity of grapes (within a vine species) is explained by their size being the market price for seeding. This is neither predation nor parasitism; it is trade. Vines also trade with humans. However, birds and humans fight over grapes; birds' attacks are mostly parasitic, humans' attacks are mostly predatory.

Also, some behavioral patterns may simply share the same material. Such complexes are called organisms. My brown eyes and my native Russian language are not in competition over the stuff that makes up my body.

An interesting kind of parasitic behavior is viral infection, where the parasite uses the victim's replicating mechanism for propagating itself. An anarchist teacher in a state-run school would be a typical virus.

Some parasitic behavior is dependent on a particular victim. Such parasites attach themselves permanently to a host. A typical counter-example would be a mosquito, which does not attach itself permanently to any host, just sucks its victim's blood and flies away.

Encoded behavioral patterns are, in some sense, models of the world in which they are supposed to operate. The more accurate the model is, the more successful the pattern becomes. Truth, in this context, is what doesn't kill you and your children, if acted upon.

Successful organisms (complexes of genes and/or memes) typically do all kinds of things with others, including predatory and parasitic attacks. It is important to note, however, that specialized parasites and specialized predators are at a disadvantage with respect to their victims, because any change in the environment that harms the victim also harms the attacker, while the converse is not necessarily true. Switching predators and switching parasites, however, are some of the most successful behavioral patterns.

Parasitism is only meaningful in the context, when there is competition over material. Christianity, for example, cannot be a parasite on humanity, because there is no such competition in most cases (its not like you're either a Christian or a human). Christianity is simply a set of behavioral patterns that harm other human patterns in some respect and help in others. Catholic priesthood does, however, exhibit parasitic (viral) behavior on fatherhood. You're either a catholic priest or a father. Fatherhood builds itself a nice new male body for self-propagation and then catholic priesthood snatches it up to propagate itself, instead. This is tolerable (from the PoV of the pattern(s) of fatherhood), because Catholic priesthood does not aim at turning all men into catholic priests. Also, it suppresses condom use in order to make up for the incurred loss.

September 26, 2007 at 9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out Phenomenologically Distributed Human Parasite Phenomenologically Distributed Human Parasite M0 as another kind of systemic analysis of a parasitic view of religion or other beliefs and connects it with biological factors in the brain that help explain why it works so well.

September 26, 2007 at 10:36 PM  
Blogger Tanstaafl said...

It's really not so complicated. Atheism is a "memeplex" too. A particularly conceited memeplex that presumes man and his intellect are supreme. The be all, end all. It has all the trappings of a religion sans ritual. And that too will come with time. If it can survive the nihilistic whirlwind it begets.

September 27, 2007 at 12:03 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

The dominant memeplex in the West today "Universalism" (PC, leftism, liberalism, etc).

The "ovinization" comment was spot-on. Witness the Amy Biehl's parents' beatific rituals of public forgiveness for their daughters' killers.

As for "diversionary hysteria", how about Universalists' response to group-differences data. So much for the "reality-based community."

September 27, 2007 at 4:37 AM  
Blogger Victor said...


First of all, i think your opposition tot he term 'meme' is unfair. meaning of a term includes both connotation and denotation -- and while 'meme' denotes the same thing as 'idea', it connotes specific context -- that is, evolutionary competition.

I also wanted to try to clarify something about Dawkins' 'religion'. When you note that it is without factual content, I think you misinterpret what it means (though I suspect you are correct in that Einstein's belief did indeed include factually vacuous propositions). I say this because I regard myself as possessing the same sort of view which I see Dawkins exhibiting, though I loathe calling it a religion. It's pantheism (as Einstein admitted when he claimed to believe in "Spinoza's god"), really, but interpreted a system of values rather than factual claims.

Taken on its face, pantheism is vacuous -- the totality of existence is god, big deal, we invented a new synonym. What happens here, though, is that we introduce new valuation scheme. Some people are humanists, and some are pantheists. it's not about what you believe, but your values, what you regard as significant. This sort of pantheism is really a superset of humanism, not a mutually exclusive alternative to it.

As I tell people when they ask, Universe is my cathedral, knowledge is my worship. I am not big on mystery though (I hate it in fact, I see it as a crypto-lionization of ignorance), so I suppose int hat regard there is one significant difference.

September 27, 2007 at 6:15 AM  
Anonymous dearieme said...

"Professor Dawkins is a great scientist": oh no he isn't. The grade inflation in "great" is ridiculous. Charles Darwin was a great scientist. Dawkins is a bog-standard Oxbridge scientist who, unlike most scientists, is a fine writer.

September 27, 2007 at 7:43 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Re; "Neutrality is not acceptable. All those who are not actively infected, and who do not openly endorse the parasite, are by definition its enemies."

My position exactly. I am frequently considered an enemy by the left, not because I am wealthy, but because I don't side with the left in demonizing the wealthy.

September 27, 2007 at 8:20 AM  
Blogger Byrne Hobart said...

Victor: What do you do now that you wouldn't do if you didn't believe in this Einsteinian god? I suspect that the answer is either "Nothing" or "Nothing worth doing."

September 27, 2007 at 8:58 AM  
Blogger Faré said...

There's a good reason why the current dominant version of the Minotaur (to use the term by Bertrand de Jouvenel) shall use a previous version as its sparring partner: so as to win power, the previous version is precisely what it had to fight and win against, to begin with.

So that M.42 win over M.41, it had to take on M.41, discredit it, win over it. And thus, for a while, M.41 is still dominant while M.42 is actually subversive; then M.42 gains dominance but still has M.41 as a serious rival against which to vye for power. When the victory is complete and irreversible, M.41 is a favorite sacrificial goat, it's so much fun to hit a helpless victim, when your technique is perfected. Of course, by the time you're there, the version of M.41 you're kicking in the head has devolved a lot; it is no more the arrogant M.41b of your youth, sure of its power -- it is the pitiful M.41y of today, near the end of the line.

September 27, 2007 at 2:14 PM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

I also dislike the word "meme", for the same reason that Victor defends it: the connotation that an idea is much like a virus. I think this metaphor is much more often misleading than helpful.
Ideas and viruses are fundamentally different sorts of things. There's almost no such thing as a "good" virus. A cell membrane isn't supposed to let any foreign DNA or RNA enter at all, therefore whenever a virus infects a cell it is a result of defeating the cell's defenses. But the spread of ideas is completely different. We learn from experience, we learn from observation, but ideas aren't and can't be directly copied from others' minds, they are 1) interpreted and 2) always subject to an evaluative process. That is, more of our learning is about avoiding actions that turn out to be harmful than copying actions that are successful. We don't blindly copy each other, we copy others which are in some ways more successful than ourselves, and only in ways that we somehow conclude are relevant to that success.
The "meme" concept appears to be an attempt to answer the question, "why do people adopt beliefs which are clearly unsupported by the evidence available to them and which are maladaptive to them?" They don't of course. People have different beliefs because they have different evidence available to them, or because they have different evaluative processes, or even one mind happens to zig where another zags. But this virus metaphor seems to attribute a mystical "virulence" property to ideas themselves, as if some of them can somehow bypass the evaluative process.
Dawkins has a special hard-on for evangelical religion, and it's true that it's almost unique in the degree to which a compulsion to spread the idea is central to the idea itself, but he doesn't seem to be aware of how little that matters in most circumstances. Bald exhortations to "believe" are usually ineffective for creating believers, and if frequently repeated will just provoke hostility.
Ideas are more like beer. If I come up with a new variety, if I sell it at all it scarcely matters whether I keep the recipe a secret or publicly publish it. If people like it, it will be imitated (although probably not precisely duplicated). If they don't, it won't and even if I give it away nobody else will make it.

September 27, 2007 at 4:24 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

When we see two populations of memes in conflict, we know both cannot be healthy, because a healthy meme is true by definition and the truth cannot conflict with itself

Not at all clear that "a healthy meme is true by definition". By some accounts (see David Wilson's writings), religion is actually biologically adapive (it makes you happier, it promotes group cohesion). Conversely, it is not at all clear that the truth is adaptive -- it may be the case that too much truth proves inevitably fatal, as technology puts the means of destruction into more and more unstable hands. There may be a reason the universe seems curiously empty of technologically advanced civilizatioations. But that's somewhat tangential to your main point.

In short, memes are not true or false, they either survive or don't, and in doing so they may promote or hinder the welfare of their hosts. Truth is incidental.

Nor is social transmission of any help, because salvationism is incredibly unfashionable. Quick - how many salvationist celebrities can you name? At the average chic dinner party in Manhattan, how many of the guests are likely to be salvationists? How many salvationists are employed by Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Random House, Viking or Knopf? And so on.

Dude, how many times will you keep making this same bad argument? Salvationism has its own institutions, celebrities, periodicals, and cable networks. It seems to have peaked out, but for awhile had captured one of the two major political parties. It has, scarily, captured some parts of the military services. It's spreading like AIDS in the third world. Why should a meme care if it spreads through Vanity Fair or the 700 Club? "Fashionable" is a meaningless term, it's like asking which is the most "fashionable" or "successful" organism or gene. The answer is there isn't one, there are vast populations of divergent genes, organisms, and memes. They adapt to different niches, sometimes competing directly but in general occupying different positions of different ecosystems.

Here's a more interesing question (to me, anyway) -- why don't the fashionable, leftish, blueish parts of the US have their own version of the Xian meme? They used to -- the antiwar movement in the Vietnam had many priests and religious figures as leaders, and there was Martin Luther King of course. Why has this almost disappeared? Why have religious memes concentrated themselves on the right? Or, in your terms, why is Universalism so secular these days, if it has religious roots? ß

September 27, 2007 at 7:04 PM  
Anonymous ru said...


whether or not Universalist/progressives
happen to believe in God is (as MM pointed out) unimportant. What is important is whether they have a near-stranglehold on power in the world, a question that your comment seems to bend over backwards to avoid.

September 27, 2007 at 10:22 PM  
Anonymous Mauri said...

Tanstaafl ,as long as evidence to the contrary doesn't exist it is not conceited to presume man and his intellect are supreme.

September 28, 2007 at 12:43 AM  
Anonymous Herr Ziffer said...

Professor Dawkins' readers are not concerned about the Anabaptists, the Arians, the Monophysites, the Nestorians, or any such obsolete sect

I'm not sure that obsolete is the correct term, since there are still Monophysites in the world, mostly in the Middle East (Oriental Orthodoxy), and I believe there are even pockets of Nestorians here and there.

September 28, 2007 at 6:33 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Excellent essay. Having a bit of trouble with the idea of morbidity though. A parasite destroys its host in time, but a really good parasite just moves on to another host - that is, it isn't harmful to itself. I'm reminded of the reason for the strike in Atlas Shrugged.

September 28, 2007 at 7:53 AM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

I kept wondering how to pronounce "pwn," and then I clicked on your "La Wik" link and discoverd that there is no single accepted definition. That's what happens when you leave out the vowels.

Your essay (once I got through it) gave me several things to think about. I'm not sure that I would describe religous belief, at least at its inception, as "alien to the reasoning mind."

Religions serves all sorts of cultural and human functions, but surely one of them is (or was) simply to offer explinations for the mysteries of human experience. This necessitates an attempt to understand cause and effect relationships, which is an expression of reason. It is plausible to argue that religious belief grows, at least in part, out of this reasoning impulse.

50 years ago, if you had shown a transistor radio to an Amazon Indian, he might well have explained the sounds coming from within by the hypothesis that a little man was living inside. In other words, he would be using all the information at his disposal to make his best guess as to why this little box was speaking.

It seems to me that, in contemporary terms, the atheist's response to this analogy is that, if you break the radio open, show him that there is no little man inside, and explain how the transistors work, and yet he still persists in believing that there's a little man living within, then his belief is now alien to reason, rather than simply mistaken.

The theist's response to the athiest's rejoinder is that human experience is still fraught with mystery, and that such mystery falls outside the realm of science.

Whether or not such mystery exists is one question, and whether or not, if true, it supports the belief in a god is another.

Maybe a small distinction, but more valuable, I guess, than trying to figure out how many angels can dance on the had of a pin, and anyway, I felt like writing something.

September 28, 2007 at 8:24 AM  
Blogger Victor said...


First of all, as I said, I detest the attempts to explicitly equate pantheism with religion and belief in God. Einstein and Dawkins saw no problem with it, I do. I think the price of making it more comfortable to religious believers (which is what IMO all this talk about pantheism as religion, and Spinoza's/Einstein's god, is largely about) is the loss of intellectual coherence.

That being said, what would I be doing, or not doing, if I didn't hold these values? oh, let me see...

I would have spent a lot less of my time hiking

I would not have minored in philosophy

I would not have tried to understand QM, relativity, economics, or political philosophy.


Yes, the 'universe is my cathedral, knowledge is my worship' valuation scheme has very much affected my choices in life, as valuation schemes tend to do.

September 28, 2007 at 8:43 AM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

black sea, this reminds me of what Rand said about religion as a "first approximation to philosophy", or words to that effect. Basically that as long as you don't know any better, postulating a thunder god is fine, but once you know about electricity, you have to be willing to give up the god.

September 28, 2007 at 10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would argue with the characterization of salvationism as a parasite. I don't think it's at all clear that it harms its host. They (theoretically) tithe 10% of their income to their church, but they receive material benefits and social benefits from church membership. I was raised a non-theist like you, but I've been around red-staters enough (I'll venture a guess that you haven't) to see that salvationists are always helping out their fellow salvationists. For example, I bought my house from somebody who gave the listing to one of his fellow church members. It doesn't take too many real estate listing to get your 10% back. They get each other jobs, good deals on stuff, meet future spouses, etc.

You write about "depriving women of the right to control their bodies" as if it's a bad thing from a memetic point of view. It's actually beneficial when they do it to their own women, because it's hard to parentally transmite a meme to an aborted fetus. Trying to force non-believers to keep more babies is maladaptive, but they haven't been very successful at it anyway. Opposition to abortion and birth control is another reason why salvationism is more of a symbiont than a parasite (remember, from a Darwinian point of view reproduction is everything and liberty is nothing).

It would be better from a memetic point of view to promote large families for your own people and free abortions for everybody else (Hitler wanted to do this), but that doesn't seem to sell these days.

As for Einsteinianism vs. Christianity, there's just no contest. How can you transmit Einsteinianism to an impressionable young kid when young kids (and most adults, for that matter) wouldn't be able to understand it? I have a three year old, who understands the Jesus story, but he probably wouldn't understand Dawkin's handwaving about sublimity and beauty (does Dawkins understand it himself?)


September 29, 2007 at 9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps I am confusing reason and logic(and talking out of my ass). I studied math and one of the things that always struck me was that the math we were taught in youth(you know: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally and so on...) is an accurate depiction of world based on the rules we define. For example A multiplied by C is the same as C multiplied by A corresponds to our reality through our definitions of the concepts and our axioms. We can just as easily remove that property and create a different set of rules that would be internally consistent.
Basically this makes me question logic in general. This makes me deeply uncomfortable because I am always tempted to view my reason and logic as being my own personal religion.
Sorry if this was a waste of time.

September 29, 2007 at 11:01 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

C23, if I understand him correctly, makes a good point in that salvationism is adaptive in the most basic sense: salvationists (revelationists?) have children and more cohesive communities.

promote large families for your own people and free abortions for everybody else (Hitler wanted to do this),

Aww, not the Hitler thing again! To be fair, Orthodox Jews also vote pro-choice.

September 29, 2007 at 3:04 PM  
Blogger B. Broadside said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 29, 2007 at 5:49 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

I hope I never read "pwned" again. I'm not optimistic, but a man can dream.

You minored in philosophy, Victor? Haw haw!

Anonymous 11:01, you might be interested in this.

September 30, 2007 at 6:16 AM  
Anonymous M. Grégoire said...

"In Darwinian terms, Professor Dawkins' main point is that the adaptive interests of religion - or of any other memeplex - are not the same as the adaptive interests of its host. [...] Biologists have a word for this: parasitism."

I'm not sure whether this description of "memeplexes" as parasitical comes from Dawkings or MM. Still, it seems overly simplistic Two different species (or two different organisms of the same species) will have different interests to some degree, but their relationship is not necessarily parasitical; it could also be a beneficial form of symbiosis. The stomach bacteria referred to in the original post are a case in point, as some varieties are necessary for a healthy digestion.

A Straussian might argue, for instance, that even if religion is false, that it performs a useful social function, providing consolation in times of grief and extrinsic reasons for ethical behaviour. From an evolutionary biological perspective, religions that encourage fecundity are positive insofar as they are more likely to propagate the DNA of their host populations.

Let us grant that Dawkins's atheism is also a memeplex. Perhaps it is a helpful one by encouraging rationalism or producing more wonder and curiosity towards the natural world.

In the end, the positive or negative value of human ideas cannot be assessed without an answer to the question, "What is human life for?"

September 30, 2007 at 10:32 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Black Sea and Aaron Davies illustrate precisely the problem that proselytizing atheists like Dawkins run into in their attempts to refute religion. The notion that religious belief is a first approximation to science, that it is like a primitive tribesman's supposition that there is a little man inside the transistor radio, reflects a failure to understand the nature of religious belief, as well as an extremely condescending view of its adherents. Some of those believers may be scientifically unsophisticated, but Dawkins et al. show themselves to be woefully ignorant of philosophy and history.

There are at least two components to any religion, namely myth and cult. Under the heading of myth are comprised all of the just-so stories of ancient or primitive peoples. An example is the Greek myth which explained the daily rising and setting of the sun as the passage of Apollo riding his fiery chariot across the sky.The Greeks became good astronomers and by the classical period had developed better ideas about the nature of the heavenly bodies than that myth implied. Nonetheless, they did not give up the cult of Apollo, which persisted right up until the suppression of paganism. Literal belief in the myth was not necessary to the cult. The myth could be understood as symbolism and poetry.

A case in point of the distinction between myth and cult is seen in the life of Cicero, a hard-headed politician and lawyer whose surviving writings indicate that he was a follower of the New Academy of Carneades, which held that certain knowledge was impossible, and that practical assumptions based on probability were as much as could be achieved. Yet this practical and sceptical man also prized his initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis, which he claimed was the best and most divine gift of Athens to the world. One cannot imagine that Cicero took the myth as literal truth, but he was an enthusiastic participant in the cult.

Because the Abrahamic religions are scriptural, and a substantial number of their believers insist on the literal truth of scripture, it is more difficult to distinguish myth and cult in them than it is in ancient religions. Nonetheless the distinction can still be made.

Consider the example of the prophet Daniel, who, as told in the apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon, acted as a sort of spiritual detective. Scattering ashes on the floor of the temple of Bel, he revealed that the offerings said to be eaten by the idol were actually removed by Bel's fraudulent priests; feeding an unpalatable meal to a 'dragon' worshipped by the Babylonians, he caused it to burst and die. This narrative is the antecedent of Black Sea's scenario in which a primitive's supposition that a little man must be talking inside the transistor radio is refuted by opening it.

When Dawkins and other proselytizing atheists point out the errors, inconsistencies, and crudities of the Bible, they hope to be the doughty Daniels of their own True Faith. But by showing that there is a great deal of myth in scripture, all they are doing is to fault the people of two or three millennia ago for not being aware of current scientific theory and for using the means available to them to describe natural phenomena.

Serious adherents of the cults of Judaism or Christianity are not at all disturbed by this news. They are already aware of it. The theory of evolution, to cite one example, does not per se disturb any Christian who is not a literalist. What disturbs him is the neo-Epicureanism that frequently accompanies it (and for which there is no more empirical basis than there is for the idea of intelligent design).

The ultimate vindication of the truth of Daniel's faith, we may recall, came after his exposure of Bel and the Dragon. It was then that his enemies caused him to be thrown into the lions' den. It is unfortunate that Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. have so far, in their attacks on fundamentalism/salvationism, chosen to face only a few malnourished alley cats. They need to withstand sharper and bigger claws and teeth before their testimony is credible. Although I'm not a Roman Catholic, my suggestion is that they be thrown to the Jesuits.

Some years ago I read a transcript of an interview of the great scientific cosmologist Stephen Hawking. I do not recall who conducted the interview. At its conclusion the interviewer asked Hawking, did he believe that the universe had a creator? Hawking said that he did not. Why? the interviewer asked. Hawking responded, "Because I find it more aesthetic." There spoke both an honest atheist and one with a much better philosophical footing than Dawkins and his ilk.

September 30, 2007 at 12:45 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

michael s., you may be interested in this from Eliezer Yudkowsky.

September 30, 2007 at 1:04 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Michael S: "The notion that religious belief is a first approximation to science"

I don't know, wasn't this put to rest with Cassirer?

Cicero as "a follower of the New Academy of Carneades, which held that certain knowledge was impossible"

Well, nobody really knows this. After all, there is the Academica, but there is also the De Natura Deorum, which seems to lean away from the Academy towards a favouring of Stoicism (at least in its last words...). His moral essays also lean more towards a Stoic focus on duty.

"Yet this practical and sceptical man also prized his initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis, which he claimed was the best and most divine gift of Athens to the world. One cannot imagine that Cicero took the myth as literal truth, but he was an enthusiastic participant in the cult."

One can do more than imagine; just have a look at Cicero's De Divinatione for some fascinating insights into his scepticism about the oracle. It's difficult for us to understand C's combination of state piety and private scepticism towards augury.

September 30, 2007 at 4:45 PM  
Blogger Tanstaafl said...

as long as evidence to the contrary doesn't exist it is not conceited to presume man and his intellect are supreme.

mauri, for evidence to the contrary all you have to do is open your eyes, it's all around you. Man could not only not have created himself or what surrounds him, he has barely begun to fathom it.

Cosmologists faced with the conundrum of physical parameters that are apparently perfectly tuned for our existence forgo Occam and prefer instead to posit infinite parallel realities subjected to natural selection. No creator requires no creation requires big bangs banging away ad infinitum.

They reason backward from their conclusions and are doubly blind. The infinite is God.

Dawkins' Flying Spaghetti Strawmen and Bronze Age Smoke Screens are beyond bogus. He is reduced to ridiculing what he does not comprehend. He dare not put forth a positive argument supporting his own position, because atheism amounts to faith. A conceited faith by definition, because it leaves only man himself as god. How convenient.

September 30, 2007 at 11:28 PM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

michael s.

Your comments were interesting, but I was most surprised to find myself cast as one of those "proselytizing atheists like Dawkins"!

In fact, I intended to proselytize niether for nor against atheism (actually, I wasn't intending to proselytize period, but then again, I guess most proselytizers don't). Rather, I was trying to dispute MM's claim that religion is necessarily "alien to the reasoning mind."

My poor inhabitant of the Amazon basin was not meant to represent a contemporary believer capable of making the distinction between instructive myth and literal fact. I thought he might illustrate that, even prior to adequate scientific understanding, people still form cause and effect hypotheses (or beliefs) about phenomena, because this is one of the functions of the reasoning mind. In the pre-scientific world (if I may use such a term) many of these beliefs were cast in religious terms.

As knowledge grows, the educated are exposed to more empirically-sound explanations. If so - and as you point out - they may come to view their original beliefs as mythically, rather than empirically, true. Alternatively, they may simply abandon them. Obviously, people do both. These would seem to be the two rational options of the educated believer, confronted with the non-literal nature of his religion's myths.

However, if I could bring us back to my Amazon analogy, should our Indian persist in treating the myth of the transistor radio as literal fact, even after science has demonstrated its falsity, then we might say that his belief is now "alien to the reasoning mind."

In your comment, you say of the Abrahimic religions that, "it is more difficult to distinguish myth and cult in them than it is in ancient religions. Nonetheless the distinction can still be made."

Do you agree that believers familiar with contemporary science who nevertheless refuse to distinguish between the myth and literal fact of their faith are committing an error of reason?

You also say, "The theory of evolution, to cite one example, does not per se disturb any Christian who is not a literalist."

But what of the Christians, and for that matter, Muslims and Jews, who remain literalists? This persistence could be due to ingnorance (see my Amazon Indian prior to breaking open the radio) or it could be due to irrationality (see my Amazon Indian after breaking open the radio and discovering the workings of transistors, if he continues to believe in his prior understanding of how the radio "spoke.")

In short, I was trying to demonstrate through my Amazon Indian example how religious belief can emerge from and express elements of both the rational and the irrational mind.

It was not my intent to condescend to anyone, neither believer nor non-believer, nor for that matter, Amazon Indian.

October 1, 2007 at 6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there is an uber meme here that needs pointing out.

In his 'God Delusion' book, Dawkins considers I guess the God hypothesis and decides that God is highly improbable. In saying that he says that he considers God highly unlikely but not impossible.

Let's talk about unicorns, horses, horned and unhorned goeats. I don't think that there are any unhorned goats, though I could be wrong, i don't think I am and it doesn't matter for my example. As far as I know, there are horses and horned goats, but there aren't any unicorns or unhorned goats. But just because there aren't any unicorns or unhorned goats doesn't mean that there cannot be such creatures. Maybe someone might breed such creatures in the future, maybe there could have been such creatures had a wave function collapsed in the past a little differently, if the 'many worlds' interpretation of quantum mechanics, there might be alternative universes with unicorns and hornless goats in it. On the flip side, there isn't anything necessary about there being horses and horned goats in the world, there just happen to be here.

God is a different kettle of fish though. If God does not exist, he won't be existing in the future, he didn't in the past, and he couldn't have come into being if a wave function collapsed differently and he doesn't exist in any possible alternative universe. If God does not exist, God is impossible, as in meta stinking physically impossible. So if one thinks that God is not impossible, as Dawkins does, therefore...

I think the 'Richard Dawkins is not a completely dismissable idiot, therefore we might care what he thinks more than Bonzo the chimp' meme is really harmful. I don't know how income tax works in the UK, but if it works like it does in the US, I presume Dawkins is more intelligent about it than he is about religion, he hires someone who knows what they are doing to figure it out for him. His religious views would get more intelligent if were as wise about his incapacity in regard to religion as he were about the income tax.

October 1, 2007 at 7:23 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Black Sea, I did not say that you exemplified the type of proselytizing atheist I meant. I said that you and Aaron Davies illustrated the problem such people face. They think their task is as simple as breaking open the transistor radio to show the Amazon tribesman there is no little man inside. In representing the belief of theists as based in ignorance, and proposing themselves as instructors having the knowledge to remedy that ignorance, they both misrepresent the basis of religious belief and condescend to the believer, while expressing an undue confidence in their own intellectual superiority.

Of course there are simple and unsophisticated believers who are literalists. They understand their religion according to their capacity, and it is unlikely they would understand science any better.
There seems to be no appreciation amongst atheists of the Dawkins type that organized religion has always had to contend with excessivley credulous believers, and in many cases has served to restrain superstition rather than to encourage it. Chesterton is supposed to have observed (though no one seems to be able to find the source) that when men no longer believe in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything.

The wisdom of this observation is seen in the recent popularity of accounts of flying saucers, alien abductions, and similar uncanny experiences. It is evident to anyone who is familiar with their history that people have been seeing strange apparitions since time immemorial. It is also evident that they always see these things in culturally appropriate ways. The pagans of classical antiquity saw the gods, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, sylphs, and so forth. Christians saw angels, demons, the Blessed Virgin, the saints, etc. Mohammedans saw djinn, efreets, and the other marvels related in the Arabian Nights. People began to see flying saucers and little green men in the late 1940s - after they had been culturally conditioned for several decades by the work of H.G. Wells and the pulps published by Hugo Gernsback. Enthusiasts of the extraterrestrial commonly explain the experiences of past visionaries with angels, demons, etc. as being 'close encounters' with aliens. They would no doubt bristle with indignation if it were suggested to them that the aliens they thought they saw were in fact messengers from God or the Devil, djinn, or the elementals described by the abbé Montfaucon de Villars in his "Comte de Gabalis."

Such credulous folk, who believe in anything, really ought not to be fair game for Dawkins and crew. They will always be among us even if atheism becomes the state religion. Under the former Soviet Union there was a widespread literature devoted to supposed extraterrestrial visitations. Since the press in that country was under the complete control of the state, one can only conclude that the powers-that-were wished to encourage belief in these manifestations, as a means of undermining the Christianity they had failed to supplant amongst ordinary people with the bald and unconvincing narrative of their Marxist atheism.

Let me make my own point of view clear - it is that the only position tenable from a viewpoint of strict empiricism is that the existence or non-existence of God are equally un-disprovable. Pointing to one or another scriptural absurdity iluustrates only that the man who wrote it long ago failed to understand matters properly; pointing out that many people still believe that absurdity, in the face of evidence to the contrary, proves only that there are still many simple and unsophisticated people. On the other hand, all the arguments customarily advanced by religious believers, such as the argument by design, are such as to be convincing only to people who already believe.

Yet all these things being taken into consideration, two points remain. The first is anthropological: there is no society known to history in which there is not some sort of spiritual belief. This coincides with the ancient Christian doctrine that all people are inherently aware of God even if they have not the knowledge of the Gospel. Physical explanations of instinctive spirituality ("the God gene") are not persuasive, because they run afoul of the mind-body problem. One is left with the nagging suspicion that there might be something to the spiritual, though just what is the great question.

The second point is aesthetic. Arguably, the highest achievements of the human species have been motivated by that instinctive spirituality just mentioned. The great cathedrals, the precious heritage of religious art and music, are not only monuments to religious belief, but more persuasive testimonies to and arguments for faith than the disputations of theology. Have you ever read the story of the conversion of St. Vladimir, the founder of the Russian Orthodox Church? He was, as the account goes, a pagan prince of the line of Rurik; and an enthusiastic pagan, having built several temples. Yet he was not quite satisfied with his religion, and agreed to hear deputations of Muslims, Jews, and Christians each deliver their respective sales pitches. The presentations of the first two were rather arid, but the Christians (who had come from Byzantium) put on by far the best show, high mass with all the smells and bells, rich vestments, singing, the whole nine yards. Vladimir was convinced - any religion that was so beautiful had to be the right one (it also didn't hurt that it had the least restrictive dietary rules, and no ban on booze). Accordingly, Russia became Christian, and Vladimir a saint - all on the basis of his aesthetic judgment.

I suppose these anthropological and aesthetic reasons explain why many people remain culturally Christian despite an abundance of doubts and discontents. They aren't willing to dismiss the spiritual out of hand; they see more benefit than detriment accruing to society from religion in spite of their doubts (as did Jefferson and Franklin); and they find Christianity aesthetically appealing (as did St. Vladimir). They are therefore unwilling to discard it in favor of the barren and austere horizon offered by the crusading atheism of a Dawkins. For my part, I'll wait to see whether Dawkinsianity produces anything equivalent to Chartres, Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem, the Pietà or the Sistine ceiling. When it does we may re-evaluate it to see if it offers anything worthwhile.

October 1, 2007 at 11:12 AM  
Blogger Byrne Hobart said...


I stand corrected.

I don't understand how this isn't just empiricism and curiosity, though. Did you need that kind of belief to enjoy hiking and wonder about philosophy? Or is that belief a way to explain your actions without just saying "I did it because I like it."?

October 1, 2007 at 11:20 AM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

Chesterton is supposed to have observed (though no one seems to be able to find the source) that when men no longer believe in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything.

Maybe he never put it in quite so few words, but he certainly expressed the sentiment. From The Oracle of the Dog

It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there's a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a, vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery and a pig is a mascot and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; Dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because you are frightened of four words: 'He was made Man."'

October 1, 2007 at 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Randy said...


I've often wondered why those who have never been an atheist are so certain they understand what it means to be an atheist, and what is it that motivates them to have an opinion at all. Having been both a believer and an atheist, I can tell you that it means very little. My life is no different except I now have my Sundays free, and if I keep my mouth shut I can even avoid the comments and suspicions of those who still believe.

October 1, 2007 at 1:17 PM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

On the subject of the (im)possibility of (dis)proving God's (non)existence, I follow Rand's line here: God, meaning the modern Abrahamic god, omnipotent and omniscient, is a logical impossibility, and logic is an axiom that must be assumed to be valid to reason meaningfully about the world. Thus, we must assume that God does not exist if we are to reason.

October 1, 2007 at 1:31 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Mr. Davies, I suspect that Ayn Rand's 'proof' of the non-existence of God is a mirror-image of the mediæval scholastic proofs of the existence of God; both are persuasive only to people who already believe. Also, is the omniscient, omnipotent Abrahamic God really "modern"? Deists like Lord Herbert of Cherbury were beginning to move away from that concept nearly four centuries ago. Newton and Locke followed in his footsteps. Washington, an outwardly observant Anglican but also a Freemason, always couched his utterances with regard to deity in terms more reminiscent of Masonic ritual than of the Anglican service. Yet such deists were not atheists of the Dawkinsian stripe. They believed the universe had its Great Architect and that his handiwork was made manifest in the order and symmetry of nature. They further believed that Christianity brought great benefits to society, and tried in some cases to 'reform' it in ways that eliminated those parts they considered superstitious and backward. Examples of these efforts are the Jefferson Bible and the Franklin/Dashwood Prayer Book. Are these not more 'modern' strains of belief than the caricature presented by Rand?

And has not Randism been almost from the start yet another illustration of the Chestertonian axiom? Maybe it is not quite as outlandish as flying saucers but it is assuredly a cult of the type that substitutes itself for more conventional religion. Ayn Rand herself was almost the model of the autocratic prophet, excommunicating from the fellowship of the faithful any who dared (however meekly) to question her pronouncements. In this respect she belongs amongst the ranks of such charlatans as Freud, Jung, Crowley, or Hubbard.

As for Randy's observation about what it means to be an atheist, I suspect it means different things to each atheist in the same way that being a Jew or a Christian means differing things to each Jew or each Christian. We can only evaluate the belief of such people based on their own testimony. But what we must note is that many of these disputants come in an odd way to resemble all they deplore about their adversaries. We need only contemplate the example of Christopher Hitchens, who is every bit as obnoxious in his own way as Pat Robertson is, or the late Jerry Falwell was, in theirs respectively. The fervency of the undoubting atheist is no less troubling than the fervency of the undoubting Christian, Muslim, etc.; both have been, and still are, rationales for the most appalling cruelties.

October 1, 2007 at 3:13 PM  
Blogger Victor said...


It could be empiricism and curiosity for someone else. For me, pantheism has been a part of my value system (not necessarily belief) since the age when I first wondered about such questions, about 12 or 13.

You can take almost any value system, examine the behavioral results it provides, and conclude that something else could have resulted them. Humanism is meaningless because enlightened selfishness, or some form of command ethics, works just as well, right?..

October 1, 2007 at 3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Per the impossibility of God. God is logically impossible if he is an unthinkable thought, like a square circle. Leibnitz, Descartes, amongst gazillions of others including, curiously enough, at least in the section on Leibnitz in his 'History of Western Philosophy', Mr. Logical Positivism himself, Bertrand Russell, have no problem thinking God, or imagining him, which is all that's necessary for a demonstration of logical impossibility. I myself also have no problem conceiving of such a God, which confirms me in something I always kind of thought, I am smarter than Ayn Rand. I think that would explain Ms. Rand's thoughts on the topic. Maybe she and Dawkins could talk it over.

October 1, 2007 at 7:06 PM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

Omnipotence is trivially impossible. If God can make a square circle, he is a square circle; if he can't, he's not God.

October 2, 2007 at 9:03 AM  
Blogger B. Broadside said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 2, 2007 at 3:02 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Aaron, the fact that we can assemble words (e.g., square circle) to form a contradiction in terms does not disprove the existence of God. If it were so simple to do, someone would have had your brilliant insight millennia ago and religion would no longer exist.

We have the capacity to devise propositions for which no proof is possible, questions for which there is no answer. Gödel's incompleteness theorems state this in terems of formal logic. Do they demonstrate that an omnipotent and omniscient God is impossible, or do they reflect our own imperfect and limited power and knowledge? Of course, the latter.

October 2, 2007 at 3:07 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

If it were so simple to do, someone would have had your brilliant insight millennia ago and religion would no longer exist.
I think you overestimate the impact of logic on human behavior.

October 2, 2007 at 6:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Per 'square circle', it is used as a way to saying a nonsense string like 'sglkjffdd' without actually typing it out. Not being able to make a square circle is to the omnipotence thing the same as not knowing the mating habits of hobbits would be to the omniscience thing.

Just to make it easy, if you want to get it straight in the head exactly what the omni's mean, think of say JRR Tolkein's relationship with his 'creation', Middle Earth. That will also make the whole 'can God make a rock he cannot lift' thing a bit clearer, given that it seems that that chestnut would have stumped Ayn Rand, which is seeming to have been easier and easier by the moment.

October 2, 2007 at 7:19 PM  
Blogger Gojomo said...

George Weinberg writes:

There's almost no such thing as a "good" virus.

There are lots of good viruses, once you start looking.

As an innoculation, Vaccinia defends against its more fatal cousin Smallpox. And it turns out there are other naturally circulating asymptomatic protective viruses. A virus called GBV-C appears to defend against HIV. Another called AAV-2 kills cancers leaving normal cells healthy. Russians have bred bacteriophages to fight specific infections for decades. Viruses are also responsible for horizontal gene transfer, which sometimes confers benefits on the recipient organism/germ-line and may soon be recognized as crucial to evolution, even in multicellular organisms.

And despite the fact that bad viruses get all the headlines, there's been no census to determine the relative populations of good vs. bad viruses. (Until recently, viruses that couldn't be linked to disease were just ignored.) If you buy Paul Ewald's theories about pathogens evolving over time to become milder, in their own reproductive interest, why wouldn't the process continue to where some reach win-win beneficial relationships with their hosts? Black hat hackers become white hats; roving bandits become stationary bandits, pathogens become symbiotes.

We should be looking for good viruses in nature, rather than just happening upon them accidentally or sometimes synthesizing them as novel therapies. To that end, and in the neologism-happy spirit of this blog, I suggest calling these good viruses 'saluviruses', especially when discovered in the wild.

Some background links on the topic are collected at I think I first encountered the idea of viruses with subtle, perhaps beneficial effects in the short story The Giving Plague by David Brin.

October 5, 2007 at 10:07 PM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...


Some interesting stuff there. I had heard of the horizontal gene transfer, that's why I included the weasel word "almost", but it seems to me that the odds of a particular random DNA insertion from some other species turning out to be beneficial must be extremely slim. Of course, the world is big and evolutionary history is long, so it's not surprising that some beneficial transfers have occurred.

As for the other cases, for bacteria and cancer killers, my cells aren't the target. In the case of things like the vaccinius virus, it's the antibodies that are produced to fight off the relatively benign virus that are useful against the more harmful virus, not the action of the virus itself. The point is, I would (almost) never benefit from "turning off" my cells' defenses against infection, and I think this is relevant for the "ideas are like viruses" concept. I think trying to determine what will be a successful idea by analogizing with what makes a successful virus will not give correct results, except occasionally by accident.

October 7, 2007 at 2:07 PM  
Blogger B. Broadside said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 7, 2007 at 11:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great, razor-sharp analysis. I hope that your analysis of Salvationalism isn't over yet, though, because the point can be argued that they have power through political office - i.e. Bush. My grandmother who lives in New York, a hyper-liberal, constantly whines about how dangerous they are because they can plunge the country into war whenever they want, etc. So even though they lack control of education and are unfasionable, Salvationalism still comes across as virulent.

October 8, 2007 at 1:24 AM  
Anonymous i, squub said...

"Salvationism" is also taught in Sunday schools, and churches.

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February 12, 2009 at 2:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 2, 2009 at 9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! thanks a lot! ^^

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March 2, 2009 at 9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


March 6, 2009 at 9:02 PM  

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