Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sue Blackmore decides that religions are not, in fact, viruses of the mind

The world needs more scientists with wacky colored hair
Sue Blackmore is one of the go-to voices in the UK on matters of religious thinking and consciousness. She is, believe it or not, an atheist with a PhD in parapsychology.  Originally a firm believer in the paranormal, she reached the conclusion in the course of her study that it doesn't in fact have any scientific basis.  At that point she decided to find out what the mind really is capable of doing, which resulted in a number of books including the excellent (though steeply priced) Consciousness: An Introduction.

She is probably most famous for The Meme Machine, however, a book in which she takes the idea of the meme which Richard Dawkins proposed in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene (yes, it really was that long ago) and ran with it.  I don't think most people who use the word "meme" these days really have any idea where the term originally came from and how it was formulated.  Some people don't even know how to pronounce it, because they don't realize it was intended to sound similar to "gene" in order to convey a similar means of propagation.  Genes, Dawkins wrote, have their own metaphorical interests which can be viewed as independent from ours in that they "desire" to be perpetuated  into the next generation.  In the same way, memes are ideas which "desire" to be spread as far and widely as possible.  Blackmore expressed this epidemiologically, comparing memes to viruses which need hosts that are most conducive to spreading them.  A memeplex is a conglomerate of ideas which are transmitted together because they are mutually supporting, such as a philosophical outlook or a religion.

As you can imagine, an idea's interests that are independent from ours might well be also contrary to ours, which is what the word "virus" is intended to convey.  Viruses are not symbiotic with us-- they manage to propagate at the expense of our health by making us sick.  In his 2006 book Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett compared religion to a lancet fluke which invades the mind of an ant, driving it to climb to the top of a blade of grass to be eaten by grazing animals, and didn't seem to fully acknowledge how that analogy could be perceived as insulting to believers.  It smudged the line between being willing to die for worthy causes, of which martyrdom is perceived to be one, and being made to die pointlessly for someone/something else's desires.  You might say "Well, that's the entire point-- the memes just make you think you're doing something meaningful!"  Maybe so, but that's assuming one's conclusion.  Most of us would grant that some forms of self-sacrifices are in fact noble and not at all pointless, but both Blackmore and Dennett would say that those are caused by memes as well.  How do we determine which ones are virus- or fluke-like and which are not?

After attending an Explaining Religion conference at the University of Bristol, Blackmore says that she no longer views religions as viruses of the mind in the sense of being detrimental to their hosts. Why? Two main reasons:

1.  Michael Blume was able to show that religious people have far more children than non-religious people.
2.  Ryan McKay was able to show using experimental data 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."

To the first point a person could note that there are more important things in life than the number of one's children.  True in a proximate sense, but not in an ultimate one.  If we're evaluating the benevolence of a meme on an evolutionary scale, increasing reproduction is a clear advantage even if it's not in the best interest of individuals or, indeed, the world itself.  To the second point, which is well-supported by a number of studies that have been performed over recent years, a person could dither about the degree to which being cooperative and honest should be counted as more a benefit to the individual or to the group, and then talk about whether it promotes in-group cooperation at the expense of creating inter-group hostility.

However, I'm not sure we really need to conduct either discussion.  Memetics is not the only way to examine religious ideas epidemiologically.  The advantage in looking at religion as a memeplex is that it emphasizes that religious ideas are transmitted between human minds just like any other ideas, but I think that Pascal Boyer manages to do that more effectively using his epidemiological approach because he doesn't feel compelled to treat ideas as strict analogs to genes.  He tries to figure out first what should count as a religious idea, and then discusses which religious ideas are more likely to "stick" and which others are not, but not by attributing metaphorical interests to them.  That isn't to say that Boyer doesn't have his own ideas about whether religious ideas are on the whole more beneficial to us or more detrimental, but that question is not essential to his theorizing about what fundamentally makes an idea religious and likely to spread.  In fact, it's quite irrelevant to that theorization.

I don't think the matter of whether and when religion benefits humanity and when it harms us should be off-limits to scientific inquiry.  And even if I did, scientists are going to research those topics anyhow.  But it doesn't seem appropriate to make a decision about the value of religion as a whole as part of your theorizing about how it works.  These studies which point out various ways in which being prompted to think religiously causes people to be better to each other are tightly circumscribed and specific.  I don't think showing that people tend to behave better when they think they are being watched, for example, really says anything about the value of religious beliefs in general even if one function of religion is to perpetuate the idea that there is always someone watching.   This experimental data is important, but it's also important to hold off on forming grand conclusions on the basis of a few studies.  It's good that Blackmore has decided religion isn't a mental virus, but that doesn't mean it's a mental panacea either.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey, I just started reading your blog and I love it! But just one little thing irks me. You double space between sentences like that instead of single spacing like this. It's an antiquated style from the typewriter era:
    Thank you!

  3. Hi Michael, thanks for the kind words. I did indeed first learn to type using a typewriter back in grade school, and using two spaces between sentences became so ingrained that I can't promise you that I'll ever switch. It is more obvious than usual with Ariel in the size that the text is on this blog, but so far I've gone through college and grad school using that spacing without hearing any complaints. Well, until today. ;-)