Sunday, July 15, 2012

Is Religion A Threat to the Planet?

A recent book by Adam Lee entitled, Daylight Atheism  argues that just as the energy for our 21st century civilization and economy is hostage to CO2/ smoke-belching 18th-century fossil fuels, so also we are hostage to religions that dominate our world today and which are made up of fossilized dogmas. Lee refers to these dogmas as  "shaped in the cauldron of a long-gone world and compressed by time and tradition into a rock-hard mass".

He further elaborates, extending the analogy to our fossil-fuel dependent civilization:

"Religion, too, has its impurities, but instead of sulfur and mercury, humanity’s beliefs are contaminated with impurities of tribalism and xenophobia, fractions of hate and fanaticism and glorification of martyrdom. And when they burn in human minds, instead of smog and acid rain, they give us suicide bombers exploding in crowded streets, the suffocating darkness of fundamentalism, bloodthirsty mobs in the streets screaming for holy war, armies marching forth to conquer under the red banners of crescent and cross, the Twin Towers collapsing in flame."

He adds, however:

"I’m not claiming that religious belief is uniformly harmful. At its best, religion can inspire human beings to perform acts of great charity and compassion and create works of wondrous beauty. But these good works have been endlessly reported and praised, and they need no additional documentation from me. If anything, people who report on religion have a tendency to only report its good effects, while sweeping the bad ones under the rug or blithely dismissing them as perversions of “true” faith"

Which statement few would argue with, certainly rationalists. My argument with Lee's premise is not so much tied to his examples of how religions have adverse consequences in our modern world (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church continuing to oppose artificial contraception on a planet for which the current population comnsumes the equivalent of 1.5 Earths annually) but rather that he doesn't make enough of a case that more nefarious agencies could underlie whatever negative, perverse effects of religion we behold.

In other words, the basis of all religions is a unifying theme that is reactive and hostile to rationalism and especially scientific discovery, and which glorifies reactive primitive mind states as superior. The first explication of this that I recall reading was in the Chapter, 'The Kingdom and the Darkness' in the book, Chance and Necessity' by Biochemist Jacques Monod (Collins Books, UK, 1970)

Hence, Monod tied the blame to the spread of inherently primitive, anti-human and perverse ideas, in a kind of mind-to -mind infection. Hence the later coined term,"mind virus". In terms of infection, discussing the analogy to viruses in his book, Monod listed three attributes:

1) Performance value (what change does the mind virus bring about in a person's behavior?)

2) Propagation value (How far and wide is the mind virus spread and what means are employed to achieve this? I.e. fear of "Hell", fear of physical retribution (stoning, beheading in Islamic enclaves, etc.)

3) Infectious value: (How easily are other brains infected with the mind virus? What specific attributes of the mind virus faciliate this infection?)

Of course, in examining the preceding, the question must be asked: How adverse is the infection to human welfare? If there is a signifcant component of adversity, or perversity such that human welfare is undermined then one must concur the mind virus is antithetical to humans, and hence a threat to our civilization. In that case, we owe it to ourselves to eradicate the virus as we would any adverse physical virus, such as smallpox, or Ebola.

It follows then, that if a religion harbors such an adverse to human welfare mind virus, then it poses a threat to our planet and civilization by extension. Hence, the sooner we can eliminate this threat the better. The question posed since Monod's book, is 'How best do we do that?" Also, which religions do we target, say as harboring the most deleterious mind viruses?

Monod's take on the Christian religion is not sanguine (e.g. p. 157):

"Of all the great religions, Judaeo-Christianity is probably the most 'primitive' in its strictly historicist structure, being founded on the saga of a Bedouin tribe before being enriched by a divine prophet."

By 'primitive' Monod means the mind viruses underlying the religion will be most difficult to disinfect. They embed themselves in the brain at its most primitive levels, and regions (e.g. affecting the amygdala). By extension, one would understand that Monod would not be a fan of standard Judeao-Christian morality in finding any answers to sorting the mind viruses, e.g. p. 159:

"The 'liberal societies of the West still pay lip service to, and present as a basis for morality, a disgusting farrago of Judeo-Christian morality, scientistic progressivism, belief in the natural 'rights' of Man and utilitarian pragmatism".

His complaint is that all such systems are "rooted in animism, exist outside objective knowledge, outside truth and are hostile to science."  In other words, one can't trust inherently a religion or religious morality based on a mind virus which rejects scientific, objective facts of the world. Example: If a practice like masturbation is found to be innocuous and having no ill health effects, then any religion that condemns it must be dismissed on the basis of being "outside objective knowledge and truth" and "hostile to science". Hence, it can evince no objective morality, only a farrago of conflicting nonsense garbed in theological mumbo-jumbo.

Monod's position, like mine, is that any workable morality or ethics, to be objective and valid, must first be consistent with scientific principles, knowledge. If not, it's bollocks and superstition - irrespective of who proclaims it-  or which book it's written in.

Now, the concept of the mind virus was later elaborated further by biologist Richard Dawkins in his (1976) book, The Selfish Gene, and he was the first to substitute meme for mind virus.

Dawkins makes the eminently reasonable point that religions (and presumably other supernaturalist expressions) probably proliferate through a cultural counterpart to the gene that he calls the meme.  Just as genes are units of transmission of biological heredity, memes are units of transmission of cultural customs, rituals, art, all manner of ideas and beliefs - including those associated with religions.  Genes occur within a changing gene pool, while memes occur within an evolving meme pool, a swirl of competing symbols, concepts and forms.  The survival of memes in the meme pool is directly related to their appeal to human brains.  The more appealing, i.e. in respect of what they have to offer, the more likely they’ll be accessed by many brains and survive through generations.

If we grant the reality of memes, then the context of the Materialists’ position (such as Monod’s)  and what he is up against becomes clarified. No god exists, now or ever, but a god meme does. It isn’t concerned with behavior or rituals but rather the replication of an idea: that a beneficent deity exists and its arms hold out love and salvation for all, if they only embrace it with ‘faith’. This idea serves not only as a source of comfort but a facile means to account for the universe and life within it. An added freebie is that purpose emerges in the cosmos once a brain admits the meme. Once the god meme takes up residence in a brain there’s tremendous incentive to pressure other brains to accept it and adopt it as their own. Hence, the conversion and missionary phenomenon in assuring the god meme propagates far and wide.

While Dawkins book provides more refined insights than Monod's there is another book which goes both Monod and Dakwins one better. That is:  Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society, by Aaron Lynch, Basic Books, 1996. Particularly his Chapter One: 'Self-Sent Messages and Mass Belief'. At some point, we know not when exactly, every society can elicit a 'critical mass' within which a mass mind appears. It consolidates and solidifies as a matrix bearing the most acceptable memes.

Each is designed to drumbeat the reluctant skeptic-rationalist  into submission. Coincidence of the mass media with the dominant religious morality then engenders a force of mass opprobrium - fueled by the same media- to be used as a cudgel to get the laggards to heave to.  The retransmission of the underlying memes always occur within set modes, that include: the quantity parental, efficiency parental, proselytic, preservational, adversative, cognitive, and motivational.


Quantity parental: any idea or belief that influences a couple to have more children than they really should (e.g. 'You need them for your economic security in old age', or 'You'll get tax credits')

Proselytic: the fastest means of thought contagion, as Lynch notes. Recent examples:
"Y'er with us or against us!"

Of course, the above is somewhat over-simplified, since as Lynch notes there is an epidemiology. of memes and ideas, since they often occur together. Similiarly, it's important to note that while all mind viruses are memes, not all memes are mind viruses. Lynch refers, for example, to 'folkway memes' - embedded in lore from bygone days, that have no virus attributes, but may keep the mass of people thinking or believing a certain way which they regard as "common sense". (One reason many minds -brains are impervious to the finds of quantum mechanics!)  Even someone who disses memes may be subject to such a thing, since his brain is entrapped in what we call a "near realism" form of thinking and ontology, refusing to accept the "far realism" implicit in meme theory - or in potential parnormal connections to modern quantum theory, for instance.

OTOH, a meme disser, may indeed be a victim of a mass-mind "common sense" conformity, or mind virus. If he calls meme theory "psycho-babble" for example, he avoids being called ignorant himself, by an attempt to place the meme advocate or theorist on the defensive. Not realizing that he himself has already submitted to a meme (preservational mode).

My point in all this is that before we can regard religions as "threats", we need to be aware of the memes, or perhaps better, mind viruses, that are embedded within them. Once we can identify the most pernicious mind viruses we can also identify which religions pose the biggest threats to ongoing human welfare.

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