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Susan Blackmore: religion as meme and virus?

July 22nd, 2013

Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore is a British psychologist, well known because of her journalism. She is an atheist, practices Zen Buddhism, and has had particular interests in parapsychology, memes and the science of the mind.

In recent years she has exasperated some of her fellow atheists by changing her views on the idea that religion is a “virus” that is harmful.

Memes and viruses of the mind

Back in 1976, biologist Richard Dawkins proposed the concept of a meme – a behaviour pattern or idea that is transferred from one person’s mind to another’s, not necessarily because it is true, but because it makes the host person more successful in some way. It thus provides an apparently evolutionary basis for the propagation of ideas, somewhat similar to how genes are propagated by natural selection. Susan Blackmore has been an enthusiastic supporter and developer of this concept.

Memes have been used to explain the success of religion in evolutionary terms. Not wanting to give any credence to the idea that a religious belief might be true, it is argued that religious belief is a meme, a mind virus that is harmful (it causes people to think irrationally, to spend resources on irrational behaviour and it harms others, for example), but has found a way to propagate despite this. This becomes an argument against theistic belief and a way of dismissing christianity.

But wait, what does science say?

Many scientists dismiss much of this as unscientific. In particular, those who study the science of religion say the evidence shows that religion is generally not harmful, but in general confers clear advantages on those who believe.

For example, Michael Blume has found that religious societies are much more likely to have birth rates which will sustain the population than non-religiouis societies – in fact he says he has not yet found one non-religious culture that has been able to sustain its population for a century.

Susan Blackmore changes her mind

In 2010, Susan attended a conference where Michael Blume presented a paper on The reproductive advantage of religion. Susan tells how these statistics, plus knowing that “religious people are happier and possibly even healthier than secularists”, and hearing another paper at the conference showing that “religious people can be more generous, cheat less and co-operate more”.

In the discussion after Michael’s paper, she surprised many (including Michael) by saying that she had completely changed her mind, and it was now clear that religion might be a meme, but was not a mind virus, for it is beneficial in many ways.

Not everyone was happy

Not everyone agreed. Some atheists felt it was saying to much in favour of religion, even if only in an evolutionary sense and not a truth sense – one said she had lost it, but others gave a more reasoned response.

Take home messages

  1. A christian doesn’t have to feel alarmed about meme theories about religion. The fact that christian belief is beneficial in many ways (to the christian and the world) is encouraging, and what we’d expect if it is true. If memes turn out to be a useful way of describing how religious beliefs are propagated, I don’t see how they make christianity any less true.
  2. But we have good evidence that religion is not a harmful “mind virus” – see Faith and Wellbeing and Believers vs unbelievers – who are more generous?.
  3. I seem to have come across lately a number of atheists who claim to base their views on evidence, but then refuse to accept evidence that doesn’t conform to their beliefs. It is refreshing to see Susan behave differently.
  4. Susan joins Thomas Nagel as an atheist that some other atheists mistrust, because they sometimes say things that appear to betray the atheist ’cause’, as it is seen by their critics. Which sort of confirms what I suggested in 1 & 3.

More and more

Read more about Susan and her views on God and consciousness in my next two posts.

Photo: Wikipedia

2 Comments

  1. I frequently find areas that cannot be reconciled with logic: life is meaningless and life is meaningful. For me the best way to make any movement at all is to briefly acknowledge meaninglessness and then act contrary it and make my own meaning. Occasionally I take refuge with my personalized mantra:

    Bifurcate your life and live a dichotomous dream. Acknowledge that life has no meaning; yet find meaning and place it all around you. Day-to-day seek those points of light and eventually you will have glimpses of bliss and perhaps a modicum of happiness.

    Perhaps the words “life is meaningless” should be redressed into “life without my own meaning is meaningless”.

  2. Hi Ross, thanks for your thoughts. Can you tell me, how easy or difficult is it to say on the one hand that life has no meaning and then say on the other hand that you give life a meaning – and then live fully committed to that meaning? I think I would find it difficult. Thanks.

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