September 21, 2010

Blackmore: I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind

Susan Blackmore, after attending an "Explaining Religion" conference, now believes that the idea of religious belief as a virus has had its day:
...[R]eligious memes are adaptive rather than viral from the point of view of human genes, but could they still be viral from our individual or societal point of view? Apparently not, given data suggesting that religious people are happier and possibly even healthier than secularists. And at the conference, Ryan McKay presented experimental data showing that religious people can be more generous, cheat less and co-operate more in games such as the prisoner's dilemma, and that priming with religious concepts and belief in a "supernatural watcher" increase the effects.

So it seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as "viruses of the mind" may have had its day. Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a "virus" to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase "bacterium of the mind" or "symbiont of the mind" doesn't have quite the same ring.
Hmmm, not sure how I feel about this. I don't understand Blackmore's insistence on having to associate viruses with exclusively negative impacts on the host. Viruses don't care what impact it has on the host so long as it has created the conditions for successful transmission and replication. Sure, viruses are nasty most of the time, but sometimes they can be neutral and even helpful; viruses have become quite useful in gene therepy, for example, allowing researchers to insert and remove genetic material from eukaryotic cells much easier (and with a higher degree of success) than ever before.

Now, all this said, I'm completely open to new ways of describing and analogizing the replicative strategies of memes. I would have no problem talking about the "bacterial" spread of memes; if the analogy accurately describes what's happening, then we should feel free to use it. I don't find this awkward, I find it exciting!

Oh, and full props to Blackmore for having the courage to claim she was wrong about something. While I don't necessarily believe she was wrong, I have great respect for her decision to come out and publicly challenge her own views.


Anonymous said...

Religion and supernatural thinking seem to be a side-effect of the way minds are "constructed" rather than a "software add-on." There is no Tabula Rasa. We come pre-configured to be fanatics, or not.

helensotiriadis said...

this is susan blackmore, again challenging herself, in 2001:

i greatly admire her willingness to re-examine her views, something that one does not do lightly, but there's no guarantee that the change will be correct.

are we certain that religiosity is the cause increased happiness, health and generosity -- or simply a correlation with other factors that must be accounted for?

i had taken the use of the term 'virus' was intended to illustrate that this is probably not a necessary trait for our survival, but a by product of other traits that are, and not to be analyzed as corresponding to a biological virus in the literal sense.

bacteria? another term? whatever best describes the phenomenon.

Unknown said...

Susan Blackmore has a problem with logical thinking. That religions are viruses of the mind, has been ... er ... let's say, wrong from the beginning. Now she says, she has been wrong *because* "religious people are happier and possibly even healthier than secularists ...". This is not conclusive. And, by the way, I, myself, am *not* religious.

Doug said...

Agreed. First, there is no reason why a virus must have exclusively negative effects.

Second, is happiness necessarily beneficial? It's all very current to talk about happiness as the greatest benefit, but I dispute it.

Just read Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, for some fine work on why happiness may not actually be beneficial.

Unknown said...

This is really just semantics. Memes are not viruses, they're ideas. The virus analogy is a cultural standard, also applied to self-propagating computer programs.

I think parasite and symbiont are more accurate analogies. (Daniel Dennett uses these.)