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Why 100 Students Were Right About Sue Blackmore

Sue Blackmore’s article about her recent mishap in Oxford, where a large number of students walked out of a lecture she was giving, is rather ironic because she wrote another article — in 2010 — where she came close to seeing why her present view is not only false but offensive. Let me explain.

For those who don’t know, Blackmore recently explained to a group of teenagers at the Oxford Royale Academy that religions are “viruses of the mind” and that they have (apparently) uniformly negative consequences. A large number of teenagers (who she claims were mostly Muslims) walked out. I don’t blame them. See her article here.

The notion that religions are viruses is an accurate metaphor in a very restricted sense, but it is more often misunderstood than not. From what I have read of the incident, I do not believe that Blackmore presented an accurate understanding of the metaphor or how it relates more generally to the anthropology or sociology of religion literature.

It has long been known that mathematical models of viruses and of cultural diffusion have much in common. Both involve some attribute (that an individual may be infected or the holder of an idea, for example) that can be spread upon contact with others and which will adapt features to ensure its own propagation (or it will disappear). That’s a purely neutral feature of cultural diffusion. It is true of popular stories, for example, so that a story might be more likely to spread if it is more entertaining or more useful or whatever and successful stories tend to inspire their hosts to provide repeated tellings, often with modification. The fact that viruses are themselves typically harmful to their hosts is an irrelevant distraction. The relevant feature is the way in which some bit of culture spreads throughout a population and the fact that the mathematical and explanatory tools used by biologists can be used (with some modifications) by social scientists to explain cultural evolution.

When Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a “meme” (in his The Selfish Gene) — a bit of culture that self-replicates, such as genes do for biological systems — he compared it to several different bits of culture, including music. Daniel Dennett expanded on the notion and applied it to religion in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which he leaves it as an open research question whether or not individual religions (or doctrines) tend to be neutral, malignant, or beneficial to their hosts. Meanwhile, a large number of atheists — who failed to read Dennett carefully — gleefully declared religion to be a virus (of the malignant sort) and have have ignored all of the obvious problems with framing the issue in this way. Not to mention that the simple ignorance of such atheists as to the plethora of anthropological data or the careful arguments against the view articulated by, for example, Pascal Boyer (in his Religion Explained).

In Blackmore’s 2010 article, after being presented data that religion does not have uniformly negative consequences for its host, she articulates one of the major problems with this uncareful view: “So it seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as ‘viruses of the mind’ may have had its day. 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. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase ‘bacterium of the mind’ or ‘symbiont of the mind’ doesn’t have quite the same ring.” Here she has apparently ignored the fact that Dennett says the same thing in his book and is careful to couch his arguments in neutral terms. Several of the posters in the comments section hammered the nail on its head. For example, Jimothy81 wrote: “I haven’t read the Dawkins book you’re on about but my limited knowledge of viruses is that they aren’t evil or good. Their simple purpose is to multiply.” What’s true for viruses is likewise true for religion: descriptive claims should not be taken prescriptively. Edit: Indeed, viruses are not even uniformly negative in their consequences for their hosts. Some are beneficial.

As evidenced in her 2010 article, Blackmore, for reasons mysterious to me, had somehow misinterpreted the previous literature on religions-as-memes to be unanimous in its conclusion that religion is dangerous, bad, or (perhaps) evil. The only explanation that I can see for her conclusion is her own prejudice. While I am happy to see that she did change her mind in 2010, to see her declaring her older view to teenagers at Oxford is disheartening, to say the least.

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No, Greg Brahe, I do not want to discuss chivalry with you

I recently posted on my wall that chivalry is sexist and paternalistic and that men should not act chivalrous. In saying this, I do not mean that men should never hold open doors for women or that heterosexual men should never pay for their date’s meal. Instead, what I mean is that chivalry — the idea that there are particular actions and roles which men and women should fulfill in virtue of their gender — is sexist and that, often, this involves illegitimate expectations being placed on women (for example, that women are somehow obligated to sexual activity because their meal was previously paid for).

There were two reactions which this post received. My female friends were very close to consensus in agreement and the only disagreement was over some (relatively) more minor points. Many of my male friends have communicated agreement to me as well, either on the thread or in private conversations.

A few men — but Greg Brahe in particular — objected to the statement that chivalry is sexist. Recently, he has issued a challenge to debate and/or discuss this topic with me on his podcast. I have refused for two reasons:

1. I will not speak in place of a woman. This issue primarily affects how women are treated and I do not think it is appropriate for me to speak when it would be very easy for Greg to invite women onto his program to explain their experiences with chivalry and why they do not like it. The vast majority of posts in this Facebook conversation were written by female friends of mine and not by myself. While I did offer some posts, I do not see myself as a primary contributor to the conversation. One of the ways in which Greg’s behaviour was critiqued was that he was perceived as primarily responding to men and had to encouraged, multiple times, to respond to women. The fact that he levelled this challenge at me — and not at any of the women who participated in the thread — speaks volumes.

2. I do not want to enable a public platform where a group of men discuss issues that primarily affect women. Last time I checked, I am a cis person with a penis. I have not had a lifetime of experiences dealing with chivalry (and neither has Greg). Therefore, I would much rather listen to what my female friends and colleagues have to say on this topic than to voice my own opinions on it.

If there are women who are reading this post who would like to respond to Greg’s request for a debate and/or discussion, I encourage them to do so and wish them luck.

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A Priest, a Physiologist, and a Baron… and, no, it’s not a joke

My talk at the 2014 Secular Student Alliance East Coast meeting has been placed online. You can watch my talk below:

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“Evidence, Theism and Naturalism” roundtable discussion

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What Can We Atheists Learn From Our Christian Neighbor?

“I now know enough about all religions to know that I would always be an infidel at all times and in all places, but my particular atheism is a Protestant atheism.” — Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great, chapter 1

Three years ago, I attended a large worship service on my campus. The adult leader of that organisation talked with me afterwards and our discussion became heated. I didn’t particularly want it to become heated, but I had yet to learn how to talk to people who did not share my view of the world (this remains a struggle, but I am better at it now than I was then).

Our quarrel was over our respective interpretations of the Bible. Looking back on it now, it seems so odd to me that we fought over something so relatively trivial. Even though there are many details of the Bible which I find grossly immoral — God ordering the mass deaths of nearly everyone, including children, in the Great Flood or two bears slaughtering 42 children that merely mocked a prophet because he was bald — the man I was speaking to does not condone genocide or the killing of children. It may be a cost of living inside a particular community that he assent to particular beliefs which are sometimes difficult to maintain. It may be true that he identifies with, and interprets his life through, the framework provided to him by that community. It may also be true that he holds as sacrosanct propositions concerning gender and sexuality that I would find abhorrent. Yet I had not stopped to understand why he accepted the cost of assenting to beliefs that many would find difficult to maintain. I had not taken the time to understand the experiences which he interpreted through his framework. Our debate did not center on those of his views which I might find harmful nor did it center on those views and experiences we shared as humans. There would have been plenty of reasons for righteous indignation, but they were only tangentially related to what we were discussing.

The irony is that our discussion was predicated on shared assumptions owed to the common origins of our respective cultural outlooks. In the West, the history of Christianity and atheism are intimately tied to each other. One cannot understand the history of Western atheism without understanding the history of Western Christianity.

The protestant reformation represented a move towards a more individualized and privatized religion and away from a public, institutionalized religion. While atheists may use their private, individual reason to answer the question of whether or not God exists, protestants tend to emphasize their private, individual experiences as “proof” of God. Some Christians may accuse atheists of putting their own reason before God, but Catholics could easily accuse contemporary evangelicals of putting their personal experience before God’s authority. Evangelicals may say that they experience the Holy Spirit when they are Born Again, but other Christians will see that as the individual and subjective usurping the Ultimate and the Absolute.

While some protestants have (and still do) provided arguments for god’s existence, it was the Roman Catholics who first declared the doctrine of preambulae fidei: before one can have faith, one must prove by reason that God exists. Early modern atheists accepted this doctrine, but rejected the Catholics’s arguments for God’s existence.

Even the term ‘Freethinker’ originates in a protestant theological context.

At times, this has allowed for religious communities and Freethinkers to learn from each other. At other times, it has laid the foundations for brutal conflict and political disagreement. I fear that today we live more in the latter than in the former. Although our contemporary cultural situation is far more complex than other periods of Western history — and we desperately need for our cultural discourse on religion to be inclusive of Muslims, Jews, wiccans, Shintoists, Buddhists, Native American spiritualities, etc — I would like to call for a re-evaluation and a deconstruction of our present situation.

I have already seen some, from both sides, who I think are more than capable of moving this situation forward. Christopher McHugh and his followers, at New Apologetics, are Catholics who are leading a new kind of church life: they are working hard to both understand and respectfully respond to atheists. Pastor-turned-nonbeliever Ryan Bell (who blogs at Year Without God) often sounds as though he wishes for a belief space to be created that rejects the theism/atheism binary. James Croft is eager to create religious spaces for atheists, but in a way that I find serious and rigorous. The Reasonable Doubts podcast is prides itself on the high level of knowledge of its hosts and the professionalism with which they carry themselves.

Too often we essentialize, demonize, and ignore our common history. Seldom do we stop to think: what is the broader story that has brought us to this impasse? What are the social and cultural forces which produced both of us and set us at odds? Are we really engaged in a debate over God’s existence, or are we actually debating how to make society? I’m not saying that we should stop condemning religious institutions, beliefs, or practices when they cause harm  (unequivocally, we should condemn such things). Nor am I saying that we should stop having a public dialogue over the truth or falsehood of Christianity or its doctrinal claims. What I am saying is that we need a discourse that is predicated on an understanding of the social scientific and historical study of religion. We need original thought and creative new strategies. And we should watch ourselves in what we do to ensure that we do not exasperate an already difficult situation.

I will end this post with an Easter-appropriate metaphor that I believe we can take from our Christian neighbors. Traditionally, Christians have believed in Original Sin: that since the moment Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, Sin has been in the world. We are born into a fundamentally broken world. For Christians, the brokenness of that world is the reason we require the salvation of Jesus Christ, whose blood sacrifice took on the sins of the world. There are many reasons I find fault with this idea, but I also see within it the potential for a powerful metaphor for social justice.

We are born into a broken world. Not because one of our ancestors disobeyed God, but because all of our ancestors, collectively, arranged society to be fundamentally unfair. Neil DeGraase Tyson recently summarized the issue when asked about why there were so few women in science:

I’ve never been female, but I’ve been black all my life and so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective. I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expressions of these ambitions. All I can say that is the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist was, hands-down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society. … Now here I am, I think, one of the most visible scientists in the land. And I look behind me and I say, ‘Where are the others who might have been this?’ And they’re not there. And I wonder: Where is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn?

We are born into a world that has been fractured and broken by the Sins of racism, homophobia, cis-sexism, transphobia, and the list goes on. Like the invisible metaphysical force Christians believe to have been released from the moment Eve bit into that piece of fruit, these structures overhang and organize society.

None of us made these social structures, nor are most of us aware of their existence, but we all participate in them. Many of us (including myself) alternatively benefit and are hurt by them. Unlike Christians, I do not believe that our salvation comes from blood sacrifice. I do believe that empowerment, consciousness raising, and dialogue are salvific. Unlike the imperialistic attitude that certain versions of this metaphor might suggest — such as an outside force appearing to “liberate” a group from their oppression — I believe that salvation arises from within communities and that allies may help by recognizing the social structures they participate in.

Let us re-make our world.

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Guest post at Ed Brayton’s blog is….

Available here!

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“The New Agnostics” Appearance on HuffPost Live

I appeared today on the HuffPost Live news program to discuss the rise of the “Nones” in the millennial generation. You can check that out here.

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Philosophy Discussion on ‘Faith and Skepticism’

Justin Schieber, Elijah Thompson, Tyler McNabb, and myself were recently featured on the ‘Faith and Skepticism’ podcast:

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Apparently, Stafford Betty’s God Still Isn’t Big Enough for Me

It is often claimed that atheists (and other heretics) reject the wrong sort of God. Theologians assert that God’s nature is far more mysterious than atheists recognize. True knowledge of God is far more hedged, tentative, and indirect than the dogmatists atheists are used to arguing with. If only atheists could be exposed to a much bigger and far more intellectually appealing deity then they would surely be able to believe.

Such arguments are not new. Nor is the form which such arguments take.

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FTB Con 2 Panel on Counter Apologetics, featuring Russell Glasser, Justin Schieber, and myself