Daniel Dennett: Religion is a virus

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Daniel Dennett: Religion is a virus

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Daniel Dennett wrote:
Religion owes its continued existence not to God, but to a form of evolution, Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett said at the Hardigg Family Fund Lecture held this Tuesday in Dartmouth Hall. Dennett, co-director of Tufts’ Center for Cognitive Studies, advocated studying religion as a “natural phenomenon” and compared religious ideas to viruses, which thrive by replicating and passing themselves from one generation to the next.

Dennett said religions are “brilliantly designed products,” but that the presence of religion does not prove God’s existence: A design does not necessarily mean there is a designer, he said.

Religion is a type of “meme,” an idea passed from person to person that evolves much like a virus, Dennett said. Viruses, like memes, are not alive, but still develop according to the laws of natural selection, he said.

What do you folks think?  How far can we extend the analogy of a virus?  Is there anything to be gained from the use of this analogy?  If we accept the idea of a viral meme, what implications does this have for discussions of human culture?

Thoughts?

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Well, viruses are always

Well, viruses are always changing.  The common cold is a virus that we still have trouble combating because it's always altering itself and is remarkably complexed.  We still have no vaccines for it and we still can only suppress the effects of it.  Religion has split itself off in various ways and found new "hosts" for it's counterparts to spread to others over the centuries and I suppose you could call that a virus-like attribute.  Not many changes have emerged between each belief system, though, but some are becoming more tolerant of others and still others abandon the "meme" altogether.  It might be more appropriate to just say that religion is a pandemic and this does not have to tie into a viral study because "epidemic" and "pandemic" can mean societal problems and issues.

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I used to think "meme" was a

I used to think "meme" was a useful concept, but I'm not so sure any more. Sure, ideas and thoughts can change to suit the environment, but that's just it: they mould themselves to the environment in which they exist. This is due to the pastic nature of the information-bearing substrate in which ideas live: the ideas themselves are coded by abstract information, and so are able to be modified at will.

On the other hand, the combinations of phenotypes that are selected in nature are bound to a physical data substrate. This substrate isn't plastic, and changes only slowly, and randomly, with the selection pressure on the information expression, and not the information itself.

So there's a fundamental flaw in likening ideas to genetics. I don't know if it's an insurmountable flaw, but it is a flaw.

I think religion (and fantasy-belief in general) is much more insidious than any virus could be. People get to pick and choose what to believe, as any fantasy at all is fair game. I think that's why there's so much woo in the world. There is only one innoculation against fantasy thinking, and it works to different degrees in all of us.

So, I'm not sure what I think. On one hand, it's a nice easy metaphor. On the other, it's a shaky, incomplete metaphor that might lead to irrational thinking.

"Yes, I seriously believe that consciousness is a product of a natural process. I find that the neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers who proceed from that premise are the ones who are actually making useful contributions to our understanding of the mind." - PZ Myers


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 Well, I like the idea of

 Well, I like the idea of it as a simile very much, but less so as a metaphor, as there are some notable differences between the two besides the really obvious, abstract ones.  For one thing, catching Herpes simplex 2 doesn't inoculate you against AIDS and vice-versa, but being raised as a fundamentalist Christian does tend to keep you from becoming a Muslim or a Hindu, and that's a pretty huge difference between individual religions functioning as "mind viruses" and real viruses.  Of course, you could say that religion itself is viral, but that eats away at the usefulness of the simile/metaphor from the other direction.  You don't catch "Virus", you catch a virus, or several.  

I think I prefer the French term for virus in any case:  "Phage".  We microbiologists are in the habit of describing viruses with eukaryotic hosts as "viruses" and viruses with bacterial hosts as "phages" or "bacteriophages", which is quite sloppy if you ask me.  If Anglophones had adopted "phage" universally, however, we would be subject to terrible puns from the likes of Dennett, having a form something like the following:

"I was once an evangelical Christian, but that was just a phage I was going through."

 

 

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 Quote:For one thing,

 

Quote:
For one thing, catching Herpes simplex 2 doesn't inoculate you against AIDS and vice-versa, but being raised as a fundamentalist Christian does tend to keep you from becoming a Muslim or a Hindu, and that's a pretty huge difference between individual religions functioning as "mind viruses" and real viruses. 

Just to be a pain in the ass, I'll point out how many Christians read the horoscope and get tarot readings and practice tantric sex.

Quote:
"I was once an evangelical Christian, but that was just a phage I was going through."

Oh my.

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Doesn't everything that's

Doesn't everything that's popular today "spread like a virus"

 

I mean look at blackberries.

 

 

 

 

 


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I don't believe Dan Dennett

 

I don't believe Dan Dennett thinks of a meme as an actual thing, or anything more than a contagious idea; but I think he judges it a useful enough term to use.

I'm sure he also understands that his comparison of religion to a virus only works so far. Again, it's just a useful concept he employs to communicate why he thinks studying religion scientifically would be a good idea and what kinds of information the research might yield and what kinds of hypotheses you might start with.

 

When not comparing religion to just a general virus, he's also fond of comparing it to a parasite called a lancet fluke, which I had never heard of before watching one of his TEDtalks about religion. The lancet fluke is a parasite that hijacks the brain of ant, causing it hang out on the top of blades of grass so that the ant will be eaten by a cow, so that the lancet fluke can get into the cow's stomach. It's his fancy way of pointing out that religion makes people do things they normally would not do; even things that are NOT in their biological self-interest (e.g. celibacy, holy war, fasting, etc)

 

And then he also takes the position that if we apply evolutionary principles to the meme-ness of religion, then we should be able to come up with an explanation as to how religion started with simple beginnings and then tweaked its features over time to ensure its own survival (but only the same sense that a gene does its own tweaking, i.e. unconsciously). It's been a year or so since I read it, but the whole evolution-ish/meme-ish/virus-ish/lancet fluke-ish idea is what he lays out in Breaking The Spell.

 

But I'm pretty sure he's not so much saying that this is how it IS. I think he's only saying, "Well, we might look at religion this way." He's just trying to stir the pot as far as getting people interested in studying religion as a natural phenomenon.

 

 

Dan Dennett wrote:

Religion may become more of community organization without a set creed or something practiced by a minority — like smoking — that is looked down on by most people, he said.

 

LOLZ!

 

 

A place common to all will be maintained by none. A religion common to all is perhaps not much different.


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The free speech meme in me

The free speech meme in me says let him say it. The pragmatic empathetic human in me can also see why theists would react negitivly to such use of a term.

It is much like the miligned word "ignorant", which has been demonized to mean dolt, retart, stupid. "Ignorant" in it's litteral sense merely means having a gap in knowledge, which all humans have about things they are not familure with. I am "ignorant" about the history of Japan other than a smattering of it's involvment in WW2.

"Virus" is apropreate in that a meme can be passed on to someone else without demonstrable scrutiny to stop a false belief from spreading. But theists will take that as liiterally being deseased, like we were claiming that they are less than human, or lepers.

Deity belief of any kind, from belief in Thor and Isis which were passed down falsely to future generations who litterally, as people do today, pass their ideas down through societies and generations.

I think we can use this analogy, but carefully and wisely, by pointing out past memes in human history that turned out to be false, which most humans accept today, in order to get them to consider that even their meme is in the same boat.

In all our blasphemy and rightful criticism we must display the same compassion and empathy we expect from our own family and own community.

In other words, it is not a virus, like a literal forgien DNA code, but merely a claim that is baught because the buyer of such a claim is inflicted with lack of knowledge and suffers from what we all are potential from suffering from, filling in the gaps.

 

 

 

 

 

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Don't Do IT

Viruses will be around long after I crush all religion.

*Ahem*

I mean after the majority sees reason.

This analogy is wrong and easily read as intolerable rhetoric.

*Old christian man grumble*

Bill O'Rielly would love to hear we said it a bit too much.

Who would want to finish what they have said with the same thing everytime?


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I would love to chime in,

I would love to chime in, but I'm extremely busy at the moment. I'm staunchly on the pro-meme side. Memes are real, just like words and concepts (in our minds) are real. Unfortunately, I just don't have time right now to defend the position. I'm working on an essay, which will probably be titled "In Defense of Memes". That will be my next major contribution on the subject.

In lieu of a defense, check out this guy's YouTube videos on memes: Tim Tyler

Tim Tyler: Memetic takeover

Tim Tyler: A new kind of evolution

Tim Tyler: Misunderstood memetics

Tim Tyler: More Memetic Misunderstandings

Tim Tyler: Memetics death report exaggerated

Tim Tyler: Misunderstandings within memetics

Tim Tyler: My memetic misundertandings

 

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 Quote:  I'm staunchly on

 

Quote:
  I'm staunchly on the pro-meme side. Memes are real, just like words and concepts (in our minds) are real. 

In your essay, I'll be looking in the first few paragraphs for two things:

1) A complete and thorough definition of a meme

2) If you are going to defend memes as being in any way analogous to genes, I'll want to know precisely what the unit of selection (comparable to a gene) is in memes.

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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Hambydammit

Hambydammit wrote:

 

Quote:
  I'm staunchly on the pro-meme side. Memes are real, just like words and concepts (in our minds) are real. 

In your essay, I'll be looking in the first few paragraphs for two things:

1) A complete and thorough definition of a meme

2) If you are going to defend memes as being in any way analogous to genes, I'll want to know precisely what the unit of selection (comparable to a gene) is in memes. 

Don't drag me into it yet. Seriously. I am actually very busy for at least a week.

But briefly... Eye-wink

I will state my standards of evidence, but a 'complete and thorough' definition seems an unreasonable standard. Mendel did just fine with a functional definition. Darwin didn't even know what a gene was, but he knew they must be there. Even after DNA was discovered, while people knew it was related to heredity, it took Watson and Crick to come up with a tangible mechanism. Still later before the actual codons were discovered. All the while, the concept of a 'gene' has been becoming more powerful and more specific. Even today we run into twists and turns that modify our conception of genes, such as how promoter regions work, etc.

In any case, I can make a case for words and concepts. As Dennett says, "words are memes you can pronounce". I will be getting more specific than this, though. Read On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins if you want a preview. Though he doesn't talk about memes, he does talk about something analogous to DNA in the brain: a substrate to store concepts.

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 Quote:I will state my

 

Quote:
I will state my standards of evidence, but a 'complete and thorough' definition seems an unreasonable standard. Mendel did just fine with a functional definition. Darwin didn't even know what a gene was, but he knew they must be there.

I guess "unambiguous and functional" will do Smiling

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

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superstition is a disease

Superstition is a disease and we have a genetic disposition to be infected.  Long ago when we were hunter/gatherers {before?}  We evolved a gene that made us want to follow a leader.  If you look at the behavior of many ape species today you will see that one of them usually decides the time to move on, stop and eat,go to nesting sights, etc.  This is useful for survival as it prevents bickering over every mundane task.  There are also reproductive advantages for being the leader.  As we evolved it became obvious that the leader was not god despite some effort by the leader and his toadies to make us believe otherwise.  So it became nesessary to promote god and make him invisible, but still there, in the form of lightning, thunder, volcanoes, etc.  Eventually after a great many promotions we arrive at where we are today.  There are some of us that are able to use our minds to see through this scam and laugh at our less intelligent fellows.  No amount of arguing with my dog will convince him not to trust his geans and breed as often as possible.  It is the same with superstious people.  There geans tell them there must be a leader and  for the unfortunate majority , they are unable to use reason to go against evolution.


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Quote:We evolved a gene that

Quote:

We evolved a gene that made us want to follow a leader.

GAAAAAAH! The magnitude of error of this sentence is hard to express.

 A gene (in eukaryota) is defined by an ORF (open reading frame) and the transcription of a single nucleotide sequence (I am hesitant to say "protein" because of alternative splicing, also because some genes serve to form rRNA, tRNA, etc.). There is no such thing as a "want to follow a leader gene". Because of an effect called combinatorial control, hugely complex effects can be generated by the developmental plans that are under the control of sets of genes, but there is no gene which by itself gives rise to herd mentality any more than there is a gene which makes us able to paint. Complex neurological effects such as herd mentality are not the result of single genes. Second of all, herd mentality existed long before the rise of humans. Few of the instincts we possess are unique and many are just selective exacerbations of preexisting instincts. This should not come as a suprise to those who know how evolution works. New functions are always related to preexisting structures. Biological structures in particular organisms with no functional relationship to those of descendants are unheard of in biology. This includes neurological structures responsible for various human instincts.

"Physical reality” isn’t some arbitrary demarcation. It is defined in terms of what we can systematically investigate, directly or not, by means of our senses. It is preposterous to assert that the process of systematic scientific reasoning arbitrarily excludes “non-physical explanations” because the very notion of “non-physical explanation” is contradictory.

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Magnitude

Peer review is good and I admit that I oversimplified, but do not retract my basic premise.


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nigelTheBold wrote:I used to

nigelTheBold wrote:

I used to think "meme" was a useful concept, but I'm not so sure any more. Sure, ideas and thoughts can change to suit the environment, but that's just it: they mould themselves to the environment in which they exist. This is due to the pastic nature of the information-bearing substrate in which ideas live: the ideas themselves are coded by abstract information, and so are able to be modified at will.

On the other hand, the combinations of phenotypes that are selected in nature are bound to a physical data substrate. This substrate isn't plastic, and changes only slowly, and randomly, with the selection pressure on the information expression, and not the information itself.

So there's a fundamental flaw in likening ideas to genetics. I don't know if it's an insurmountable flaw, but it is a flaw.

I think religion (and fantasy-belief in general) is much more insidious than any virus could be. People get to pick and choose what to believe, as any fantasy at all is fair game. I think that's why there's so much woo in the world. There is only one innoculation against fantasy thinking, and it works to different degrees in all of us.

So, I'm not sure what I think. On one hand, it's a nice easy metaphor. On the other, it's a shaky, incomplete metaphor that might lead to irrational thinking.

Your quite wrong about the unchanging nature of genes. genes mutate very frequently but they are then corrected by repair mechanisms in the cell.

In fact for every life cycle a cell can incur a large number of errors that has to be corrected. so basicly even in the environment that genes reside they constantly have to be corrected to stay unchanged.

 

Now if you look at the environment of memes this also happens there. if you "incorrectly" interpret a meme your peers in your society wil try to correct you. In fact interpreting memes wrong can result in your ridicule or worse. and as for religion this is very clear, if you dont interpret the memes correctly you are branded a heretic and cast out of the religion/society and in extreme cases even executed.

In this analogy the inquisition is like am imune system and a heretic is a cancer cell with far to many mutations to repair. Smiling

I think when one deffines a meme one has to include how it functions not only in one individual brain but in a society as a whole, and then i hope you see that we as a species have inbuilt correction mechanisms specifically "desiged" with the purpose of enshuring the correct interpretation of memes.

 

"Everyone knows that God drives a Plymouth: "And He drove Adam And Eve from the Garden of Eden in His Fury."
And that Moses liked British cars: "The roar of Moses' Triumph was heard throughout the hills."
On the other hand, Jesus humbly drove a Honda but didn't brag about it, because in his own words: "I did not speak of my own Accord." "


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I both like it and don't

I both like it and don't like it. Religion isn't alive, therefore it cannot be a life form, therefore it cannot be a virus. So on this count, I declare my lack of support for the analogy.

Other than that it does work well. It copy/pastes it's "genetic code"(example: the bible), with the odd mutation(example: christianity to mormonism). It can be innoculated against(example: education). It can't be destroyed as long as enough fragments of it persist. If I considered a virus to be not-life then I could support it. But I don't.

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Hambydammit wrote:Daniel

Hambydammit wrote:

Daniel Dennett wrote:
Religion owes its continued existence not to God, but to a form of evolution, Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett said at the Hardigg Family Fund Lecture held this Tuesday in Dartmouth Hall. Dennett, co-director of Tufts’ Center for Cognitive Studies, advocated studying religion as a “natural phenomenon” and compared religious ideas to viruses, which thrive by replicating and passing themselves from one generation to the next.

Dennett said religions are “brilliantly designed products,” but that the presence of religion does not prove God’s existence: A design does not necessarily mean there is a designer, he said.

Religion is a type of “meme,” an idea passed from person to person that evolves much like a virus, Dennett said. Viruses, like memes, are not alive, but still develop according to the laws of natural selection, he said.


I'm a world religion major, and I would definitely agree with Dennett that religion is a form of evolution and that the existence of religion does not prove the existence of God (in contrast to proofs by CS Lewis).

However, I disagree strongly that the evolution of religion follows a path of natural selection. Just look at the history of Judaism. YHWH was just a god among many others. YHWH was embarassed by Marduk during the Babylonian exile. Then look at the Roman War in 70CE, the Christianization of the Roman Empire, constant pogroms, and the Holocaust. Yet Judaism still survives as a religion. If natural selection regarding religion was true, Judaism would not exist.

"A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, 'darkness' on the walls of his cell." (CS Lewis)

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Dan Dennett wrote:Religion

Dan Dennett wrote:

Religion may become more of community organization without a set creed or something practiced by a minority — like smoking — that is looked down on by most people, he said.

On a side note, I've always hated how people look down on smokers. Religion may go away, but smoking never will.

"A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, 'darkness' on the walls of his cell." (CS Lewis)

"A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading." (CS Lewis)


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Christos wrote:Dan Dennett

Christos wrote:

Dan Dennett wrote:

Religion may become more of community organization without a set creed or something practiced by a minority — like smoking — that is looked down on by most people, he said.

On a side note, I've always hated how people look down on smokers. Religion may go away, but smoking never will.

 

Notice that he didn't say people would start to look down on religious people like they look down on smokers. He said that people will start to look down on RELIGION like people look down on SMOKING.

I know plenty of smokers. I love them to death, even if I dislike their habit.

This is a crucial difference.

 

A place common to all will be maintained by none. A religion common to all is perhaps not much different.


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Christos wrote:Dan Dennett

Christos wrote:

Dan Dennett wrote:

Religion may become more of community organization without a set creed or something practiced by a minority — like smoking — that is looked down on by most people, he said.

On a side note, I've always hated how people look down on smokers. Religion may go away, but smoking never will.

Don't be so sure about that. I'm predicting that smoking will be illegal within 50 years, at least in North America. Religion will take at least a hundred fifty years to disappear. Probably a lot more.

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