Susan Blackmore backs off on religion

Speaking of memes, as we were in a recent posting, one of memedom’s stars has reconsidered her view that religion is an evil virus, spreading through the helpless minds of humanity like H1N1 through a subway car.

Susan Blackmore, famous for her Technicolor hair and her popular book The Meme Machine, has been converted: religion, true or not, is not a virus.

It’s not that Blackmore herself has been suddenly softened toward the facts of  religion — she joined other British luminaries from Richard Dawkins to Stephen Fry in calling on Britain to bar the Pope’s state visit, on the grounds that the Catholic Church opposes progressive policies and that the papal state is “merely a convenient fiction to amplify the international influence of the Vatican.”

Rather, as she wrote in the Guardian (September 16, 2010), she no longer believes that the term “virus” should be applied to the meme, religion. “Virus” is a pejorative term, she argues, implying harm without regard to the welfare of the host, in this case the human brain. If religious memes are mind viruses, she reasons, why do they seem to have such positive effects?

In her article, Blackmore reports that she opened the conference which prompted her change of mind with her standard take on religion:

The idea is that religions, like viruses, are costly to those infected with them. They demand large amounts of money and time, impose health risks and make people believe things that are demonstrably false or contradictory. Like viruses, they contain instructions to “copy me”, and they succeed by using threats, promises and nasty meme tricks that not only make people accept them but also want to pass them on.

As she listened to the speakers who followed her, however, she experienced a change of mind, based on the information she heard, and which she summarizes in her article.  The first striking statistics came from several speakers who outlined recent research showing that religious adults have more children, sometimes many more, than do secular adults. In stark reproductive terms, the religious are propagating at a rate that suggests that there is something advantageous to gene propagation in religious belief.

As well, Blackmore heard data that went beyond mere strength of numbers. Was it not possible that while religion memes were replicating themselves successfully, they were harmful to the individuals who carry them?

All this suggests that religious memes are adaptive rather than viral from the point of view of human genes, but could they still be viral from our individual or societal point of view? Apparently not, given data suggesting that religious people are happier and possibly even healthier than secularists.

Even further, Blackmore heard “experimental data showing that religious people can be more generous, cheat less and co-operate more in games such as the prisoner’s dilemma, and that priming with religious concepts and belief in a ‘supernatural watcher’ increase the effects.”

Blackmore now concludes:

Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a “virus” to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply.

Negative reactions to Blackmore’s conversion range from the indifferent — memes are an incorrect concept anyway — to the personal — she’s always been flaky and fickle; just look at her early interest in parapsychology.

More thoughtful criticisms focus on some of her claims for the good effects of religious belief. Some responders point out that labeling a high birth rate as a positive benefit is arbitrary, and may, in the light of growing concerns about the limits of the planet’s material resources and the negative effects of our misuse of the natural environment, more properly be judged to be detrimental to our survival. In this view, the religious memeplex may proliferate successfully right up to the point that its effects topple our civilization entirely.

Another counter-argument attacks the presumption that “happiness” can have any number of definitions, and that some religions encourage uncritical acceptance of ritualized thinking, such that in the longer term human creativity and innovation may decrease to the point that our cultures begin retrogressing. Those who take this point of view cite the long stagnation of Europe under medieval Catholicism and the apparent current decline of Islamic culture under the pressure of Moslem fundamentalism. The “contented cow” effect is deceptively pleasant, but it has negative effects for personal growth and human progress.

One fairly obvious and very important point is that whatever one chooses to call the religious impulse has no effect on what it is and how it works. If it walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, and you call it a Siamese cat — it’s a duck. Blackmore suggests that religious belief is more like a bacterium than a virus, but she rejects the designation “bacterium of the mind” as fatally unattractive. (Here, at least, she’s unlikely to encounter much disagreement!)

Blackmore herself has produced some of the best summaries of how religious belief operates as a memeplex, and this operation is not changed by a change in terminology.  In an article available on her website, Blackmore writes:

Note that the way to think about these religions is not to imagine someone making up a religion with all these meme-tricks in place, but rather to imagine lots and lots of little cults starting up all over the place at different times, with different tricks. Most would die out, just as most organisms die out without leaving any offspring, but the very few that happen to have the best tricks will win through, persuade people to copy them, and so shape our minds and our cultures.

One particularly interesting insight Blackmore’s memetics provides is a novel way to view the differences between Christianity and Zen Buddhism:

At base the memes of Zen are not very sticky or infectious. There is the idea of no-self, the tough practice of meditation … living without clinging or desire and giving up the idea that anything really matters. These are not immediately attractive ideas. No wonder that all too easily Buddhism … becomes a religion like any other – with bells and incense and music and beautiful buildings and pictures and statues and promises of gaining merit or being reborn in a better life… .

So for Blackmore, religion is still a meme. She’s just not sure anymore that it’s a destructive one. In a sense, the “meme as mind virus” meme has been outcompeted in her mind by the “positive effects of religion” meme. She’s acquired a new memepoint.

Or been infected by a new virus.

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2 thoughts on “Susan Blackmore backs off on religion

  1. As Michael Ruse points out in Science and Spirituality metaphors are only useful to the extent that they match the reality they help us grasp and we can become aware of aspects of the reality the metaphor is not describing . It is helpful to elucidate the dissonances but that doesn’t make the metaphor completely useless.

    • I’ve just about finished Science and Spirituality . While I liked the elaborations of the organism and machine metaphors, I’m finding the last parts less satisfying. Merely demonstrating that certain questions cannot be answered by science doesn’t mean that trying to answer them by faith makes sense. Perhaps these are questions in form, but not questions in fact, if by a question one means a statement that solicits a possible answer. Science can’t answer “big questions,” maybe never can — but how does that validate religion, which doesn’t answer any questions at all? That religion attempts to address unanswerable questions shouldn’t lend credence to it.

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