Monday, October 25, 2010

When is a virus not a virus?

Susan Blackmore throws in the towel on the "Religion is a virus" schtick.

Blackmore, who has largely functioned as a seneschal in the service of Dan Dennett's philosophy of mind (as well as a CSISOP member), bought into and promoted this idea for... you know, I'm pretty sure it's been for years now. So it's rather noteworthy that she's throwing in the towel on this one, and in a very thorough manner. From Blackmore's perspective, religion is no longer a virus from a genetic or societal point of view.

Now, I never bought into this idea to begin with because 'viral' in the way Blackmore is defining it (even as she defines it in the article) requires speaking in terms of harm, which in turn gets into value judgments. Now, I believe in objective goods and intrinsic values, but I know it's not the stuff of science, so her project was irrelevant to me from the start. Still, I thought, interesting to see that even on her own terms the idea failed.

Interesting enough, right? But there's one problem, easy to miss.

See, the data that turned Blackmore on this question was comparative data: Stack the religious up against the irreligious and measure their traits. On sizable number of them, the religious fared better.

But... what if we reversed all the results in question? Switched the irreligious with the religious?

And there's the problem. Blackmore isn't abandoning her position because of some fundamental flaw with the 'theory' in question, but because the data that informs the theory went the wrong way. But if the religious are performing so well compared to the irreligious... then isn't secularism, or atheism, a virus itself by those very same standards?

When is a virus not a virus? When the right people have it, apparently.

6 comments:

IlĂ­on said...

"When is a virus not a virus? When the right people have it, apparently."

So I've noticed.

"And there's the problem. Blackmore isn't abandoning her position because of some fundamental flaw with the 'theory' in question, but because the data that informs the theory went the wrong way. But if the religious are performing so well compared to the irreligious... then isn't secularism, or atheism, a virus itself by those very same standards?"

That result was always logically inherent in the "theory," regardless of particular outcomes.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Did I ever run my hypothesis by you to the effect that atheism is arguably as common as other cognitive impairments like autism and blindness, statistically speaking? As you may have read in the long post of mine recently, wherein I wrangled with my friend about "best defense is good offense", I see atheism as a species of "metaphysical autism."

Crude said...

Codg,

I saw it, but now I'm curious. Have you ever heard of Vox Day's speculation that 'New Atheists' suffer from social autism? I figured your idea was related to that, but if you're concluding that atheists suffer from a form of autism independently, that's interesting.

http://voxday.blogspot.com/search?q=social+autism

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Crude,

I was not aware of Vox's "social autism" hypothesis. But it's surely in harmony with the thrust of my point. I think, though, that my emphasis is on the metaphysical impact of hyper-reductive thinking, which I take to be the MO of atheism and a cognitive handicap in its own right. The idea came to me from years of pondering how people do or don't hear/see beauty/form in art and music and from studying autism (a la Baron-Cohen).

I'll look at Vox's post and maybe run my ideas by him.

Did you see the recent piece about "Sam Harris Believes in God"? http://www.newsweek.com/2010/10/18/atheist-sam-harris-steps-into-the-light.html

Best,

Crude said...

Oh sure, you weren't proposing the exact same idea. But it sounded similar, and I was surprised (and amused) that it was something you noticed independently. It sounds rather apt to me, and certainly fits many of my experiences with the usual flock.

I didn't see the Harris piece. Interesting! I know Harris is something of an outlier among the New Atheists, since he talks a lot about 'spirituality' and has some strong eastern leanings. Honestly, I admit I don't think much of him - he seems petty and bumbling, and (irony of ironies) egotistical. And his war on 'religion' seems vastly more to be a war on 'any religion that isn't Sam Harris''. For a supposed buddhist, he doesn't strike me as being very self-reflective at all. (Then again, if you don't think you have a self anyway...)

Though that fits into a theme of my own: There's less atheists than we think out there, I say. Scratch an atheist, and many times you'll find a pagan, a deist or some kind of 'loose' theist. And I have a feeling if most people came across Aquinas' (and other orthodox Christians') idea of "God" - as pure Act, as the Logos - they'd mistakenly brand it as 'impersonal force'.

Back to the 'Bearded Man in the Sky' problem.

Crude said...

A couple other thoughts on the Newsweek article.

* If 'the atheist community' wasn't already upset enough with Harris for being a moral realist, I'm betting that him writing a book praising spirituality - especially if it gets too obviously religious - will be met with cries of 'Harris has abandoned the Gnu cause!' and so on.

* I enjoy the idea that only the 'progressively religious' believe that, say.. "God is love". Not like you'd find that in the bible itself. Not right at 1 John 4:8, certainly. You won't find God as the Word either, nor the Logos, nor the light, etc.

* Harris says that God is the wrong word to describe his beliefs because it 'shields' the wrong people. Again I say, it sounds more like Harris has a problem with anyone who believes in a religion other than his, not with 'religion' full stop. And this article has me wondering if Harris does, in fact, believe in God - even a transcendent God, a platonic good or Brahman or some kind of ground of being and so on. But he doesn't want to call it that because religious people are supposed to be over THERE and he's over here and he can't really have anything in common with them can he?