Discussion #12 – Atheists, Retail Therapy and Baptist Zombies

Susan Blackmore, a psychologist and researcher who is an authority in the field of “memetics”, posted a recent article on the Richard Dawkins Foundation site describing her dismay at having religious students walk out of one of her memetics lectures. Muslim and Christian students took exception to her description of religion as a “virus of the mind” (ala Dawkins), the Koran as a “horrible book” and other remarks critical of religious faith.


Spreading the atheist gospel

The easy narrative here is that Professor Blackmore, an avowed atheist and rationalist, was trying to open the minds of her students and show them the irrationality of their beliefs – and that those students who were offended were displaying an inability to think for themselves and explore alternative viewpoints.

As gentlemen scientists, we don’t think things are quite so simple. We like Dawkins and Blackmore, but we think that they and their compatriots often lack humility. It’s easy to sneer to religious people, but which of our ‘secular’ behaviours and beliefs will be sneered at by the Dawkins of five hundred years from now?

(Brian points out that the modern act of shopping – buying material goods that we don’t need – would be deeply irrational and ridiculous to the members of a Papua New Guinean highland tribe.)



Deeply irrational “viruses of the mind”

We are all selective and biased in our processing of information. We distort reality at every step of the way, often in subconscious ways beyond our control. We are masters of self-deception. And the boundaries of our knowledge are completely opaque to us – we have no idea of what we don’t know.

All of which means that the only rational state of mind is one of humility, skepticism and open-mindedness. Not everything can be falsified now, but just because we can’t do it does not mean that it cannot be done. We know a lot, and vanishingly little at the same time. Not everything can be settled. Arguments rarely if ever change minds, but they can plant a seed. And everyone has an agenda, even the most ‘objective’ of scientists and even (perhaps especially) if they have convinced themselves that they do not.

Our ramblings then move into memetics itself and debate the core meme-gene analogy; religions as memeplexes and useful mutations thereof; proselytization and the power of faith; our responsibility to attempt empathy; how to build bridges; learning by doing, not talking; the good that religions do for individuals and communities.

We love the ideas behind complexity, adaptive systems and evolution and we would defend them anytime, but we don’t feel the need to proselytize. You’re free to listen to our ramblings and opinions, but we are not asking you to share them. As gentlemen scientists we never expect everyone to think exactly the same way that we do.

So we sympathize with Professor Blackmore. But if her objective is to introduce her ideas to new audiences, then insulting their way of life isn’t a great way to do it.

Download as MP3

1Susan Blackmore’s book is called The Meme Machine

2The book that Shourov is currently reading is Deceit and Self Deception by Robert Trivers

3Brian refers to ‘stuff sickness’ as identified by Papuan New Guinea highlanders, but no relevant links can be found. Standby for more on this topic in a future podcast.

4In fact, students walking out on her lecture were demonstrating memes in action – it seems the meme of “walk out on Professor Blackmore” was conceived and transmitted quite effectively within the room without the use of verbal language.


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