Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evilAlthough Sam Harris and Dan Dennet are prominent faces of neo-atheism as well, nobody represents the new atheists more prominently than Richard Dawkins. And nothing brings their disdain for religion more to the point than the idea that it being a dangerous memetic parasite – a virus of the mind. A parasite capable of turning individuals into ‘faith sufferers’ – analogous to ants turned into living berries offering themselves to birdssurrendering themselves to false ideas to the point of committing suicide in their defense. The only hope in becoming immune against such mind viruses are of course the tools of reason and science.

Reason and science – the wonderful idea that a person should be moved by a superior argument and nothing else. This after all is the logic of scientific discovery:

“[...] science should adopt a methodology based on falsification, because no number of experiments can ever prove a theory, but a single experiment can contradict one.”

This view of critical rationalism, as espoused by German philosopher of science Karl Popper, suggests that we must recognize an idea as unequivocally wrong as soon as it is falsified. Now there are of course good reasons why it would be silly to simply discard a falsified scientific or spiritual theory (context) since they can still prove useful, but only in the absence of one that is at least relatively less wrong. As soon as we have a better theory we are bound by reason to adopt it.

Wanting to understand the scientific argument behind the ‘mind virus theory’, I went through the peer reviewed publications of Richard Dawkins as listed in his curriculum vitae. What I found was precisely a single one page article vaguely touching on the subject called “The ‘St Jude’ mind virus” published by Dawkins as a co-author to Oliver R Goodenough in reputable scientific journal Nature (371, 23 – 24 (01 September 2002); doi:10.1038/371023a0).

The article describes a chain letter that propagates itself by “inducing guilt, fear, greed and piety” and thereby ensures self replication and takes this as “confirmation for the existence of human mind viruses”. Ok – fine, so ‘mind viruses’ exist, but what about the causal connection to religion? Undeterred, I turned to the high priesthood of atheism and asked for peer reviewed work on parasitic religion and got…absolutely nothing. But should you read this and can point me towards relevant work please do not hesitate to send me a note.

Digging yet a bit more I stumble across an article titled Parasite Ecology and the Evolution of Religion. From the abstract:

“It is argued that the blanket view of religion as a disease, advocated by Dawkins, is inconsistent with the principles of parasite ecology. These principles state that vertically transmitted parasites evolve towards benign, symbiotic states, while horizontally transmitted parasites increase their virulence. Most of the world’s established religions are transmitted vertically, from parents to children, and are therefore expected to be benign towards their hosts. Yet, certain horizontally transmitted cults, such as the Aum Shinrikyo, seem to effectively exploit their hosts in a way similar to an infectious disease.”

Seems like a falsification to me. But what alternative ideas are out there that could possibly provide a relatively less wrong explanation of the religion phenomenon? The answer of course is multilevel selection:

“For humans, a highly pro-social, cognitive thinking species, social norms can be seen as a means of reducing the individual level variation and competition and shift selection in humans to the group level.”

David Sloan Wilson for example has made a very good case for religion being a phenomenon of multilevel selection and summarized his argument in Darwin’s Cathedral and numerous peer reviewed papers since. Dawkins’ response on the other hand can be understood as disingenuous at best and scandalously hypocritical at worst, since he understands perfectly well that his entire stance against religion stands and falls with the validity of his mind virus theory, which has since not only been falsified but superseded.

embedded by Embedded Video

Google Direkt David Sloan Wilson: Evolution and Religion (Hampshire College 2007)

By now it is getting clear that Popper’s notion of a steady progress of scientific understanding upon the emergence of a better argument is rather naive. Human beings cling to their assumptions even if the evidence to the contrary is staring them right in the face – all claims of reason and rationality to no avail. But even for that understanding exists a better theory: the idea advanced by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which explains that:

“[...] the evolution of scientific theory does not emerge from the straightforward accumulation of facts, but rather from a set of changing intellectual circumstances and possibilities.”

In his view the current scientific paradigm is maintained by the mainstream as long as possible until it simply becomes utterly untenable and the new paradigm takes over.

In a recent article on CNN marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of the origin of species Dawkins again reitterated his case for militant atheism. As in his 2002 TED video, he argues for the urgent need to make a stance against religion and calls atheists to arms. In the words of Blair Scott, National Affiliate Director & Alabama State Director for American Atheists, Inc.:

“I can’t stand the phrase ‘militant atheist.’ I don’t see any atheist suicide bombers around or atheists killing abortion providers or blowing up trains full of Muslims in India – those are the militants.”

But what if, humor me Mr Scott, what if multilevel selection is true? Wouldn’t the atheist stance of a blatant rejection of religion, without replacing it with an alternative that is at least as adaptive, be equivalent to rejecting general relativity or quantum electro dynamics while we are still without a workable theory of quantum gravity? Surely you would not scratch someone’s eyes out simply because they are not 20/20 – so why would you do the equivalent with religion? Reducing the degree of adaptation in a group can lead to nothing but unnecessary suffering and endangered lives – more subtle and less direct, but just as real in its result as terrorism.

Religion in its current form is a crutch – some clunkier than others, granted – but better than none, especially now that we are finally about to return to a proper interpretation of scripture: “that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate”. Contrary to what some people claim in regards to conveniently reinterpretations of scripture, this particular guideline is arguably a damn good one. I say lets keep the crutch for now – recognize it as such but keep it. At least until we have designed an arguably better alternative that is based on a thorough understanding of evolutionary dynamics, supported by a conducive political/economic framework, and are ready for roll out.

The inconvenient truth remains that Dawkin’s mind virus theory is about as supported by science as intelligent design and just as motivated by blind ideological fervor. I am convinced, that Dawkins will end up being judged by history as having effectively stifled a more enlightened understanding of religion by at least a decade. Shame on him. Yet as so often, we are not stuck with Dawkins at all – there are lots of free thinking alternatives out there. Michael Shermer, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, is far more enlightened for example.

13 comments on “The inconvenient truth about Dawkins’ atheism

  1. Some exchanges from FB for future reference:

    Jef Allbright
    Stefan, you’re making some very good points–I hope they can be heard.

    Seems to me that there’s an important ingredient still missing from your mix, having to do with Pragmatism of the form espoused by CS Peirce.

    Mike Shumlich
    If you aren’t looking for criticism or comments, then you can ignore this. If you want some food for thought, read on.

    “And nothing brings their disdain for religion more to the point than the idea that [sic] it being a dangerous memetic parasite – a virus of the mind.”
    I’m not sure about that, it seems the focus on religious atrocities seems to arouse more disdain (as evinced, for example by chapters 7,8 and 9 of The God Delusion and nearly every page in The End of Faith).
    … See More
    “Undeterred, I turned to the high priesthood of atheism and asked for peer reviewed work on parasitic religion and got…absolutely nothing.”
    It seems like a bit of a stretch to call the forums on RichardDawkins.net the “high priesthood” of atheism. The fact that no one on the forums answered your question doesn’t mean much. Did you try to contact Dawkins, Dennett or Blackmore (a few of the more notable proponents of memetics)? Now, memetics isn’t my area of interest or specialty, but you might find something among Dennett’s publications [1], or Blackmore’s [2]—or possibly in the (now defunct) Journal of Memetics [3]. I wish I could be of more help with this.

    “Seems like a falsification to me.”
    That doesn’t make it one. I think that either view would need a lot more testing to see in which circumstances it is a valid model.

    “Dawkins [sic] response on the other hand can be understood as disingenuous at best and scandalously hypocritical at worst, since he understands perfectly well that his entire stance against religion stands and falls with the validity of his mind virus theory, which has since not only been falsified but superceeded [sic].”
    His stance on religion certainly doesn’t stand or fall by the validity of memetics. This statement makes me curious if you’ve actually read any of his books. His criticisms of Anselm’s arguments (notably Dawkins’, “Ultimate 747” rebuttal/argument), the notion that science suggests no ostensible role for a deity, etc. don’t stand or fall by memetics and these contribute considerably toward his stance on atheism. Moreover, he discusses multi-level selection (he calls it Group Selection in chapter 5 of The God Delusion) as one possible explanation of how religions develop.

    “Human beings cling to their assumptions even if the evidence to the contrary is staring them right in the face – all claims of reason and rationality to noo [sic] avail.”
    They do, granted—but this isn’t a reason why Popper’s Falsificationism is naïve (for examples of those, and an ongoing discussion, you might want to look into the work of Lakatos, Feyerabend, Sokal and the new experimentalists).

    “But what if, humor me Mr Scott, what if multilevel selection is true? Wouldn’t the atheist stance of a blatant rejection of religion, without replacing it with an alternative that is at least as adaptive, be equivalent to rejecting general relativity or quantum electro dynamics while we are still without a workable theory of quantum gravity?”
    Well, first, I agree that we should replace each function of religion with something at least as useful. However, it doesn’t follow from group selection being true that rejecting religion without an alternative is equivalent to rejecting GR without a replacement quantum gravity theory. It could end up, for example, that there is a strong ethical argument for abandoning religion that is not present in the abandoning of GR. Minor point: QED deals with electrodynamics, for which the mediating particle is a photon, whereas the proposed mediating particle for gravity would be the graviton and the terminology would either be “quantum gravity” or “quantum geometrodynamics” (this would follow the naming conventions for chromodynamics, flavourdynamics and electrodynamics, but it’s currently in use for something a little more specific, hence why people tend to refer to quantum gravity theory colloquially as just, “quantum gravity” or by the specific theory, e.g. LQG or sting theory).

    [1] Here: http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/incpages/publctns.shtml
    [2] Here: http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/publicat.htm
    [3] Here: http://jom-emit.cfpm.org/

    Stefan Pernar
    Thanks for the feedback, Mike.

    For the ‘militant atheism’ stance to be valid it requires a causal connection between theism and the atrocities you mention. The only connection put forward is the mind virus theory. In reality however, political hijacking, classical agitprop and under education are at play.

    I took the research as far as I was prepared to – considering that Dawkins and Dennet each based a TED talk on the concept and got away with it speaks volumes about how people just gobble a concept up as long as it even as much as verges at the plausible…. See More

    “That doesn’t make it one.” Seeming to me does not, but the article in fact does. I was being rhetoric and I think you understand that.

    “His stance on religion certainly doesn’t stand or fall by the validity of memetics.”

    His stance against it very much does. God’s existence being unprovable would be irrelevant as long as he does not take the next step and proves a causal connection between ‘believe in unprovable god’ equals ‘violence and atrocities’. There would be no point in being against ‘believe in unprovable god’ if it equaled ‘increased group fitness’ now would it? And as I pointed out the evidence for the latter far surpasses that of the former and the violence we do see in the name of religion are politically motivated hijackings that have nothing to do with actual spirituality.

    “They do, granted—but this isn’t a reason why Popper’s Falsificationism is naïve”

    Certainly not, but it is naive to believe that people will immediately change their minds in light of the better argument and that was my point.

    “It could end up, for example, that there is a strong ethical argument for abandoning religion that is not present in the abandoning of GR.”

    Yes sure – but what are they? (hint: I don’t think there are any :-) )

    Vic Nurcombe
    ummmm…”symbolizes the new atheists more accurately”…i have no idea what this phrase actually means….and in any case, hitchens is a far more devastating front man, as the group (shermer, dennett, hitchens, dawkins) acknowledges.
    I think this strand of argument rather pointless….the “mind meme” idea started as a parlour game at Oxford, where … See MoreI was at New College, and Dawkins put next to no effort into it. The religion as- a- parasite thing was just a throw away joke. It was others, notably Susan Blackmore, who have gone on to develop it…Dawkins thinks it mostly not very productive, for a hypothesis that explains “everything” always winds up explaining nothing, as he is fond of saying. Thats the reason there is so little on it. So this is yet another “straw man”, incorrectly ascribed to Dawkins, who, although casting a fatherly eye on this strand of thought, in fact has had very little to do with it.
    And Popper ceased being an accurate model for how Science is actually done about 50 years ago. Did you never hear of Thmas Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos….??? Falsifiability comes at the end of the sequence, not the beginning, when Science is actualy going on in the trenches.

    Stefan Pernar
    “ummmm…”symbolizes the new atheists more accurately”…i have no idea what this phrase actually means”

    Thanks for highlighting the clunkiness of this phrase – but I think it is perfectly understandable, Vic. Fixed it.

    “The religion as- a- parasite thing was just a throw away joke.” I actually think it is – yet it has since been elevated as dogma by the atheist fundies…. See More

    “So this is yet another “straw man”, incorrectly ascribed to Dawkins,”

    Really? How about some proof to back this up? Others may have regurgitated the meme, but Dawkins originated it in 1991 and ‘backed it up’ with the 1994 Nature article. Since then he has used the idea in numerous follow ups (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viruses_of_the_Mind).

    “Did you never hear of Thomas Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos….???”

    Did you not read my full post??? I mention Kuhn later on.

  2. http://rationalmorality.info

    Dear Stefan,

    My last words to you:

    You are picking on the wrong guy.

    It is true that Dawkins is very vocal and managed to make a lot of noise, but he was unable to deal a serious blow to religion. Mainly because he talks a lot about genetics, his field. Ever since Darwin came with evolution and genetics managed to prop that up, religion continued unhindered on its way. Of course it is easy to doubt that intelligence can come from such simple and unintelligent things as bacteria. There are quite a few scientists that still doubt that. One even got a Nobel Prize, check out professor Auckman, a devout jew. He opened his acceptance speech with “Praised be the Lord, for He is good.”. Funny guy.

    Anyway, a lot of my colleagues and myself continue their work, quietly, and will soon be able to deal the final blow to religion. God in his wisdom gave the world a great gift. He gave them neuroscience so that it can cleanse the world of all false teachings.

    The idea that made religion last for so long is that after death the soul will continue its journey. That is tough to deal with. Genetics can’t take that away. Simple arguments can’t deal with that. It is the critical point that sustained religions through time. But very soon, neuroscientists will be able to publicly prove that there is no soul. And that will mean one thing:

    THE END OF RELIGION

    Given the large number of papers and conferences on the subject of consciousness, or awareness or arousal system as some of my esteem colleagues are calling it, it will be only a short time until its mechanisms will be figured out. Actually, yesterday I read in the newspaper about the case of that patient from Belgium who was brought back from the dead, his “vegetative” state. Wait until a public demonstration will be made by the most enlightened minds in our field.

    Like I said, you are picking on the wrong guy.

    Regards,
    David

  3. Dear David,

    I think that you are being naive if you believe that just because a group of scientists prove beyond all doubt that there is no soul that this will be the end of religion. Evolution is proven beyond all doubt and the fundies do not even flinch. If that is your expectation you will be greatly disappointed.

    In addition, I have much more confidence that the atheists will start to see the value in spirituality – when done right, but I guess we all have our naive moments :-)

    We will see – at present I am cautiously optimistic…

    Cheers,

    Stefan

  4. alex arul on said:

    Good post Stefan :)

    Alex arul

  5. I haven’t studied science, theology or philosophy, so I am not going to be able to keep up with deep debate on this, but … reading the piece about the St Jude virus sounds like Dawkins thinks religion is pretty well identical to a chain-letter, which seems daft, but unsurprising. I must say that everything I’ve read about him and his ideas suggests a cold, cold outlook on life – we’re nothing but machines, and susceptible to mental bugs. That reminds me of a bit of contradiction in his stance: when it comes to crime, he uses the comparison of Basil Fawlty’s car, and says we should be ‘repairing’ criminals because they’re obviously not working too well; there’s no moral failing or freedom of choice involved when someone commits a crime. Yet he’s very quick to call people with religious beliefs evil, deluded and so on. So … rapists, murderers, all that lot, are just in need of a grease and oil change (yes I’m being emotive; it’s quite deliberate) but people who obtain joy or comfort from their can’t-be-proven-in-a-lab beliefs, and who may never have harmed anyone, are wilfully evil. Hmm … and he likes to think he’s so rational?

    Incidentally I agree completely with your comments about the interpretation of Scripture. The OT was of its time(s), its morality tales for a particular group of people at a particular stage of social development. It should never be taken as a blueprint. I’m not Christian, but in the unlikely event that I should become one, it’d be the living-in-this-century form of belief, which doesn’t need literal readings of the Bible, that I would choose.

  6. Łukasz Stafiniak on said:

    There is more in reality than meets the eye, but I have a growing feeling that religions hinder spirituality.

  7. Łukasz Stafiniak on said:

    I need to clarify. Historically, I think religions are an interplay of promoting spirituality, and hindering spirituality in favor of conformity. Nowadays, spirituality is better promoted by the wide availability of spiritual education and “redemptive” practices (like shared positive passions), oriented on servicing the individual, as opposed to religions which are (generally) oriented on non-discriminant submission of the individual.

  8. Pingback: Rational Morality » About rationalmorality.info and more

  9. DevilsAdvocate on said:

    “[...] science should adopt a methodology based on falsification, because no number of experiments can ever prove a theory, but a single experiment can contradict one.”

    “The idea that made religion last for so long is that after death the soul will continue its journey. That is tough to deal with. Genetics can’t take that away. Simple arguments can’t deal with that. It is the critical point that sustained religions through time. But very soon, neuroscientists will be able to publicly prove that there is no soul. And that will mean one thing:

    THE END OF RELIGION”

    …The only way to prove something doesn’t exist is to first find it then confirm that you have destroyed it! Until then it simply has not been discovered yet! -mjt

  10. DevilsAdvocate on said:

    …The only way to prove something doesn’t exist is to first find it then confirm that you have destroyed it! Until then it simply has not been discovered yet! -mjt

    just wanted to repeat that!

  11. Pingback: Rational Morality » The New Atheist Challenge – Give us the Reasons, Show us the Science!

  12. MegaSolipsist on said:

    //he understands perfectly well that his entire stance against religion stands and falls with the validity of his mind virus theory, which has since not only been falsified but superseded.//
    This is completely untrue. The atrocities committed by religion are his main reason for opposing it, as well as the scientific retardation it has caused in so many areas. The memetics approach is really on a very small part of professor Dawkins’ stance on religion.

  13. My point is that he has no scientific evidence for his stance. Can you point me to a peer reviewed, scientific study that confirms his perspective? Thanks.

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