Saturday, 04 April 2009
I've really enjoyed the meetup.com get togethers with the local atheist group (link) now that I'm living in St. Louis and not the rural area. Sharing deconversion stories and informing total noobs who Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are is great and all for about five minutes, but I walked away from the other atheist groups out in Wentzville with the utmost sense of boredom and disillusionment. I was worried that maybe atheism was just too much of a null-topic to really bond with people over and that I needed to find meetups that focused on comic books or something specifically interesting in a positive sense. I may still pursue that. However, the city group is a lot better. It's nice to finally have some real people to talk to that are actually competent and familiar with the territory of many of the debates that go on between worldviews. The conversations are as much about cool science stuff, politics, general life issues, and hardy debates on narrow topics (in addition to some standard expressions of disbelief in the popular superstitions) that it actually feels relevant, dynamic, and worth going back to every time. It much more reminds me of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast (link) than just a myopic hooded group of anti-theists planning to go out and burn Christians at the stake (that's on Tuesdays). The people are what really make the difference and it seems we have a solid enough group that I can actually respect and--GASP--maybe even learn from. I've been really craving an interesting peer-scape with healthy doses of give and take and it seems I've stumbled into that. Yay! :D
Anyway, I wanted to organize my thoughts on a particular issue that came up after we went to see Dr. Darrel Ray talk about his book, "The God Virus" (link) at the local Ethical Society (link). The group organizer, Joe, took issue with the virus analogy and claimed it misrepresented evolution and didn't really apply to anything. I don't want anyone to get the wrong impression. Joe is a smart guy, he's knowledgeable, experienced in many debates, and he's very interesting to talk to, but we all get things wrong occasionally. I think I understand where Joe is coming from, but I think he goes too far in dismissing the metaphor wholesale. I hope to present some of his objections and explain why I disagree to the extent that I do. Neither of us have actually read the book and we are both proceeding on the basis of the presentation given. This serves as a preliminary discussion to sort out the issues as they currently appear to be and should not be taken as a defense of the actual contents of the book necessarily.
(part 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and parts 10 and 11 were filmed here in St. Louis)
I should probably start out by saying that I was a little cynical going into the presentation and that I basically expected Dr. Ray to fail and fall miserably into too many unclarified cliches' that would cause cringe after cringe and make me regret being a member of Team Atheism (as though there is such a thing as Team Atheism). I was pleasantly surprised however that he seemed quite a bit more sensible than his book title would suggest and I was careful to actually test the possibility that my initial impressions of the event might be mistaken. Why go if you're not going to actually listen? Dr. Ray offered up much tempering of his claims as he went along and framed the discourse to my own satisfaction that he wasn't some stereotypical Dawkins-bot who went off the cliff with a narrow minded idea that he took a fancy to. I think my position is defensible and two of my heroes that recommended the book (Dale McGowan and Hemant Mehta) seem to think just as I do. It seems other people were not so generous in their interpretation and reacted to the stigma they didn't want to be stuck with imparting to religion (as though they don't honestly think they can justify any stigma to faith based belief systems).
Where we agree:
Obviously we seemed to have the same initial impressions at least, but I think Joe may be right that Dr. Ray went too far in saying that there was no sociological or psychological explanation for religion. I recall that tidbit being distinctly on a slide in the presentation. However, given that much of what Joe said would likely be obvious background knowledge Dr. Ray would be sure to possess and given that there was much unexpected sensibility elsewhere on other issues, I'd be willing to wager that what he meant was that these factors were inadequate or incomplete. Inferring agency and finding patterns where there are none alone would not give us full blown religion. Heeding authoritative figures in a tribe would not give us full blown religion. Understanding the nature of persuasive speaking would not give us full blown religion. Even putting these things together (with whatever others there may be) would not necessarily give us full blown religion (or at least there's no need to put them all together).
Perhaps Joe does not wish to be a part of the Itchy theist and Scratchy atheist cycle (link) where one group is claiming they are infected with sin, and the other is claiming that they are infected with stupid. I sympathize to an extent, but in absence of compelling evidence for the supernatural, I think a viral meme is an adequate and useful metaphor and Joe should find ways of disagreeing that are at a more tactful level rather than a logical one.
What is there to explain?
To figure out what metaphor might be applicable if there even is one, it is helpful to set up what it is that we are trying to explain. How does religion persist in culture if the supernatural claims are false? How and why do these ideas attain the status that they do? Why doesn't it just evaporate into the sunset like any other brain fart? When the first person said, "God must have created the universe," and the guy next to him said, "Maybe, but who created God?" why is that the first guy didn't say, "Yeah, you're right. Lame idea. I guess we just don't know how things came to be the way they are." End of issue. For all time. To this day even the most sophisticated and science friendly theists are still forced to fall back on an appeal to the design of the universe as though the claim hasn't been dead in the intellectual water for eons. Naturally 2+2=5 in especially large quantities of the feeling of 2 and hence there will be a never ending parade of lame distinctions put forth (link) to try to justify including God on the roster of reality. If the God meme were not fulfilling a service, weak evidence and bad arguments would probably cease being put forward (though perhaps some versions of mere deism might be off the hook). Clearly in general, as Dr. Ray said, "They [religions] can't all be right, but they can all easily be wrong." Even the correct religion, if there was one, would probably have to deal with this unless they want to implausibly open the ideological doors to all other religions or assign demonic origins to them instead. Even so, we could still likely try to explain the arbitrary memetic values that persist on top of a watered down universalist religion or the memetic interests of an unseen demon population. There's still something to explain regardless.
Many other memes go about their business without the inclusion of extraordinary claims. Various memes have very straight forward real world applications like humor for instance. People who are infected with religious memes can still be treated as intelligent, thoughtful human beings who are at best honestly mistaken about how the world works. In fact we use the viral metaphor for those as well even though there shouldn't be a stigma for things like lolcats (link). So it seems we need a term to describe how religious memes flourish apart good evidence and despite better explanations and the obvious hindrances they present society that could be resolved rather easily (like legalizing gay marriage, for instance). It's an honest question. How does the engine of that work? Dr. Ray even used that terminology. Surely Joe has to admit there is something to describe and that this departs from other ordinary categories of human psychology because of the relationship (or the non-relationship) to extraordinary claims. It's all ordinary human ingredients obviously (or else we might have evidence of the supernatural after all), but how they are put to use in this context is worth understanding and I think that's the point to Dr. Ray's book. Whether he executes that well or not, I don't know.
The viral metaphor, ideas, and free disassociation.
Joe seemed to say directly that when you boil everything that Dr. Ray says away there's no real virus, but the virus is the idea itself (and the abstract way it works socially and psychologically). I don't understand how he can just be in stark denial that there is a core of sorts. Do we really need to get into the mind/body debate over the ontological status of ideas? C'mon, we're not Platonists (link) here...
The focus on persuasive speaking.
It's fair to point out that many of the gimmicks that TV evangelists use have analogies in the world of mere persuasive speaking. I'm sure Dr. Ray knows this. But what happens when A: Only the vestiges of persuasive speaking are in use (minus a logical connection to whatever is being affirmed) and B: the whole idea is that this is only one part of the engine of religion among others and was never claimed to be some magic ingredient that religion necessarily has a monopoly on (any more than any of the other pieces of the puzzle are).
The hypnotic component is controversial and crap?
The irony of Joe saying this part is controversial and crap is that both Andrea (who was kind enough to accompany me) and myself have direct experiences with just this sort of thing in our religious backgrounds. At an FCA camp (link), they had us singing the same lyrics to "I could sing of your love forever" over and over and over again, and a rather uninitiated crowd was having rather hysterical reactions later attributed to the Holy Spirit. One girl even pulled all of her piercings out (in that bloody kind of way) and it seems as though the people running the camp were rather familiar with the kind of responses they were getting. Granted, there aren't a lot of gimmicks of any sort going on at say the Missouri Synod Lutheran church I grew up in, so that's more of just a subdued breed-a-thon (if even that) where either you agree with it or you don't, but there is plenty of hypnotic stuff going on in more of the charismatic churches (as Andrea can attest) and it is important for religious people to have some idea of what is just human psychology and what doesn't necessarily have to do with God (even if they still think God exists). So I think Joe is over-reacting a bit. Sure this happens in stage magic and perhaps other venues, but the chorus here is that what happens when you combine A, with B, with C, with D, and combine it poorly with solid evidence for the metaphysics of the religion? That's more like a memetic virus than whatever alternative Joe may have in mind.
Joe's lame broken leg counter example.
What really threw me was Joe's counter example to illustrate that anything can be called a virus. A broken leg is not a virus, but we could call it that? Perhaps this was the first example off the top of Joe's head, but to my knowledge people with broken legs do not go about breaking other people's legs and broken legs do not tend to go around breaking other bones in the same body. In the case of religion there is actual propagation in the form of various means of persuasion, mutation in the form denominational splits and various personal theories to make religion fit better with experience, and competition in the form of more appealing or satisfying beliefs (at the very least). Much like how viruses cannot sustain themselves without healthy cells, ideas need brains to flourish in. A broken leg just doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything. So no, you can't just call anything a virus.
Joe said he was most concerned that evolution was being misrepresented, but as I just showed above, the metaphor is applicable enough. One can focus on whatever differences there may be, but that doesn't negate the relevant similarities (that already apply to the spreading of any kind of idea in general). It's just a metaphor.
The end of Zeus worship via the fall of Rome?
Joe's stumper example for claiming that religious memes have no life of their own was that the worship of Zeus stopped (at least for a while) because the Roman empire fell apart. Even if that were the case historically, essentially he's saying, "there's nothing to learn from the evolution of ideas because sometimes grand disasters effect how they go extinct." Isn't that like saying the theory of evolution is crap because this one time a big asteroid hit the earth and wiped out all the dinosaurs? It's a total red herring, especially since religion doesn't always abruptly drop off the map just because of various political disasters and sometimes probably ends up doing better because of them. There's no question that politics influences religion, sometimes dramatically, but that doesn't mean it's the whole story. Religions are made up of individuals and small groups of individuals who often operate well outside the boundaries of whatever the political power base there may be in their name.
Is it science?
I think at this point it's still just a hypothesis that probably could have a decent future. I would not expect the nets to come back empty. Granted I have not read the book and do not know how much actual data is presented to defend the claims and ideas. I would hope that running with Dawkins' initial hypothesis would entail doing more than just thinking about it more, but that remains to be seen. If I understand Joe's perspective correctly, it would seem to predict that the religious memes have no identifiable life of their own and that nothing can be learned from the "change in allele frequency over time" perspective independent of the individuals who happen to be hosting the religion in their minds. The exploits of religion must be purely explicable as dead end extensions of basic psychological factors and looking at them in and of themselves would be like just pulling out random objects from a grab bag. On the other hand, if the memetic virus hypothesis has merit, tracking various religious ideas over time would yield some kind of emergent properties. The ideas chosen and focused on may tend to exude certain characteristics more often than others that could be identified. That might help us learn more about the niche in memetic psychology that religion has carved out for itself and what that might say about humanity.
I imagine that in all probability the book is an elaboration on Dawkins idea that still falls into the realm of popular treatment. I would not expect a comprehensive scientific analysis of every religious meme and that wouldn't do most readers much good. All of what Dr. Ray brought up falls into the category of well documented psychology as far as Andrea and I know. Any psychologists interested in putting two and two together should not have much trouble assembling a case with a lot of pre-established backing and all it really takes is someone with the balls to put it all together and say it that isn't afraid to offend religious people with the obvious. Religion flourishes via many psychological gimmicks that have nothing to do with the supernatural. Many religious people appreciate knowing what's what since they have their disagreements with other denominations that have stronger focus on certain gimmicks. Personally, I'd prefer the more comprehensive survey of religious function and psychology as well, but I don't think that means necessarily there isn't a place for a popular work for people who need to hear that message at that level. Dr. Ray is on atheist nexus and so I've posted some comments (link) to see exactly what his perspective on this is:
If you have read the book you can see that it is a framework for understanding and further exploration. You can look at things like sociological analysis from organizations like the Pew Charitable Trust and the Barna Group to see some pretty interesting science supporting the notion. To date, I have found no other theoretical framework that explains as well and I have been looking for a lifetime for such a framework. I did not invent this idea, I just expanded on it.
Going forward, if we expect a certain level of respect from the doubting Thomases in our ranks, qualified proponents will have to push this through the standard peer reviewed journals and make sure that the idea isn't just a perspective and actually does make useful testable predictions about the nature of surviving religious memes.
Anthropology vs. Decision Theory
Belief in God as a memetic virus serves as a dispassionate outsider viewpoint. For my own purposes of unbelief, I found formulating my rejection of the Christian religion in terms of decision theory to be more personal and appropriate. The most common criticism of my formulation of what I call a "metaphysical scam" (link) from way back in 2005 when I dropped the phrase into this corner of the blogosphere was that it "could apply to anything." And yet no one to this day has shown me a single counter example that actually fits all the criteria (link). It's just an assertion on their part. My claim is that a worldview that demands a high personal cost and yet hinges this cost on important and central claims that are consistently and persistently hidden from the most basic fact checking endeavor, where the explanations of the world offered are not necessary or probable given our background knowledge, and where the entrance into the world is all piggy-backing on rather neutral experiences should probably be rejected as a metaphysical scam even if you can't directly prove it is one (or even if it turns out not to be one). No genuine relationship should have such a presentation of self. Naturally those who are hooked embrace the personal cost (link), excuse all the arbitrarily closed doors to rational inquiry (link), let the explanations off on the basis of the weakest possibility (link), and equivocate at least some of the many subjective experiences as being necessarily genuine (link). They don't think the way I do, and no distinct reason will ever be given for why since they've chosen the argument to the worst explanation all around and are predominantly hooked for reasons that may in fact be on the table but in reality are not open for discussion.
The point of this section is that I don't really care whether religion can be accurately portrayed as a memetic virus or not (and I wanted to provide another example of a similar type of denial). I have my own conventions. But as I think I have shown, Joe has at the very least not presented compelling reasons to doubt Dr. Ray's thesis and I think there are positive reasons to give it preliminary credit.
Joe's Response (link):
It's a horrible metaphor. I'd like to read the entire book to give a decent review of it, but here's what I think is wrong based on the first two chapters and the author's talk.
The central thesis is that religion spreads like a virus.
He spent most of the talk explaining the persuasive techniques of religion. Viruses do NOT spread by persuasion. Viruses do not make appeals to guilt, for example. During this section he repeated the explanation for why these persuasive techniques are being used by saying something like, "It's the virus." That makes no sense. People use persuasive techniques; viruses do not.
In this section, he insisted that preachers hypnotize people and put them in a trance state. Hypnosis is pretty controversial in psychology to begin with, but I'm pretty sure the consensus is that there is no such thing as a trance state. At any rate, these persuasive techniques (repetition, appeal to guilt, arm gestures, use of music) etc., are pretty common in secular pursuits as well such as oratory in general, marketing and advertisement.
As Bill mentioned, it's a subset of meme theory. As such, it inherits the same problems as the meme metaphor. We understand how actual biological evolution works. In fact, Darwin's theory predicted a biological basis for inheritance before genes were discovered. There is no similar thing with ideas. Ideas--especially stories like creation myths-- are actually intelligently designed. There is no physical carrier of ideas. (The meme itself is just an idea and not a physical thing, like a gene.)
Evolution does explain how new species (and higher clades) arise, but the meme idea does not. As Bill mentioned, it really is only a metaphor for how ideas spread. You could say "natural" selection works on variants of ideas, but the result isn't new ideas, just the "flourishing" of some ideas with respect to others.
I have no problem using the "virus" metaphor with computers--but no sensible biologist or computer scientist will mistake one for the other. Computer viruses are also intelligently designed. However using a biological metaphor for something non biological at least is not confusing. Using a biological metaphor for something that does indeed have a biological basis is confusing. You could make a case that broken legs spread like an infection. Of course that sheds no light on how broken bones actually occur.
The author also mentioned that he really means "infection" and not "virus"--that's just a snazzier title for a book. Biology is not very important in the metaphor.
Finally, he claimed (at the very beginning of the lecture, in fact) that anthropology and sociology have nothing to offer by way of explaining how religion spreads. That's just not true. (Check out Wiki articles on anthropology of religion, religious studies and sociology of religion.
Moreover, I think biology (in particular neuroscience) tells us a lot about religion. I think asking what human traits (mental capacities in particular) are involved with religion is a question that sheds more light on the question than the virus metaphor. The relation of religion to other mental capacities (those advantageous for animals living in complex social groups) such as language and symbolic thought, ability to empathize (mirror cells), capacity and tendency to infer agency, to recognize patterns (especially certain types, such as faces), and so on, probably forms the substrate for religion.
Also, the metaphor only works for certain aspects of religion and ignores a great deal of it.
Don't get me wrong, I'm glad there's room in the market for differing views among free-thinkers.
I think he was strongest in his analysis of the guilt cycle. If he'd have treated that narrow issue as a topic in psychology and left off the virus metaphor, I think this work, while not anything new, would at least have avoided some pretty serious problems.
One cannot blow off x, y, and z individually as though that negates what happens when x, y, and z come together. That seems to be the consistent pattern when several neutral criteria are assembled to ratify a meta-concept and someone does not appreciate the conclusion for whatever reason. Is that what "that could apply to anything" really means? *shrug* Apparently. I really do think this is an example on Joe's part of finding lame reasons to distance himself from a politically incorrect idea and I'm just not going to let him get away with it. :D Perhaps portraying belief in god as a memetic virus is not our best foot forward in conversation with people who disagree with us, but that doesn't mean the idea is wrong and it's certainly not wrong for the reasons Joe presented.