Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The meme's eye view

It is interesting that atheistic humanism is more often than not associated with the political left, while belief in God is, especially in America, immediately identified with the socially conservative right. This kind of prejudice is clear on The Guardian "Comment is Free" pages, where there are often articles discussing different aspects of religion, and any positive comment is invariably clubbed viciously by strongwilled leftists. Recent examples are Sue Blackmore's A Dangerous Delusion and Dave Hill, who in Faith and the Left, asks for a more nuanced understanding of religion without abandoning his own atheist credentials.

Blackmore is basically rehashing the currently ubiquitous Richard Dawkin's ideas, including that of the meme, the cultural equivalent of genes. Dawkins first came into prominence by suggesting that genes themselves were engaged in a struggle for survival, and that all evolution could be looked at from the point of view of the genes, the fittest surviving. This made it possible to explain many things about many things, and we still get a lot of nonsense being spouted by evolutionary reductionists, who find a glib way to explain any scientific finding using this model. Everything is genetically based, only successful genes survive, therefore if something has survived, it must have some evolutionary purpose. If not, or if it has outlived its purpose, it will eventually go extinct.

Later, Dawkins, being a hard-core atheist, felt it necessary to explain what he called the God delusion. But how could he explain religion, being a cultural expression, in genetic terms? So he invented the idea of "memes", which basically are, like genes, these semi-personified entities that can be called "mind-viruses." They may originally serve some purpose in human society, social cohesion or whatever, and so become implanted into human minds and cultures where they reproduce and propagate, just like a living creature. And like other living creatures, or species, they may also die out and become extinct.

The point is that memes, like genes, function more or less autonomously, with their prime purpose being their own survival and nothing else, certainly not usefulness which is only a means to an end that can be jettisoned. Utility is a human projection that has no objective reality in this impersonal world.

Now Blackmore, like all good Dawkinites, feels that the virus or cancer model best fits the idea of religion. She is ready to admit that, even if God does not exist, that on the personal level the concept might serve some benefit, a little comfort or whatever, but socially it is time to kill the beast. There are too many negative consequences that accrue when the particular religion meme becomes more concerned with survival than its own utility. Like a cancer, it may reproduce lusciously, but kill the organism on which it is dependent.

The basic problem with the gene and meme idea is that it projects a telos on the world, an impersonal force called "evolution" that ultimately provides an explanation of sorts, but not a purpose. Religion has always taught that survival is not the highest goal of life, so to be told that survival is the only purpose does not satisfy the search for meaning. Projection or not, that is just something that humans will do. Like Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins and Blackmore and the rest of them can only chant the litany of evils perpetrated by religion. They argue that a rational person will immediately reject religion and that's that. If they don't, they must be irrational and infected by something malefic, a cancerous virus.

Blackmore must at least be given credit for saying that she is arguing against a specific kind of religion, one that is ready to "kill the infidel," and that this kind of religion is the problem. But even the religious people are often ready to admit, or indeed are hell-bent on establishing, that there are better or worse forms of religion. And as so many religious people are quick to say, there are other ideologies that have done as many wicked things as the wickedest of religions. These ideologies are presumably as mimetic (I believe that is the original source of the term meme) as religions are. So what is the difference between that or any other idea, which presumably helps human survival?

In the human body, when certain conditions arise, viruses can attack. Ideologies attack diseased societies. Attacking the symptom does not mean one has found the cure. In the case of religion, objecting to a particular concept of God is perfectly legitimate, objecting to God is like objecting to existence itself, or to consciousness, or to purpose and meaning.

The problem with God is that everyone is working with their own definition, and the definitions are in constant flux. Jung was not far off when he said that God was an archetype for wholeness or perfection. God is also an archetype for the self, in the sense of one's integrated self. But since our understanding wholeness or perfection, or identity, is a function of our current state of being and consciousness, everyone's concept of God is ultimately individual.

The question is whether Dawkins' theory tells us anything about the existence of God at all. In fact, God's existence all depends on your definition, and you can probably find a way to define God that will be acceptable to anyone if you can simply ascertain what their ultimate values are.

However, pluralism is a good thing because it eliminates the attempt to socially control one's God concept, and thus allows you to freely develop as an individual, which is about as true to the religious nature of the human being you can get. This is why I found Prabhupada's statement that one could use the atomic bomb to coerce people's adherence to Krishna consciousness so abhorrent. Pluralism allowed KC to enter a free society and find adherents, who were then ready to threaten their hosts with death if they did not convert also, believe or not? Prabhupada told the story of the man on the Indian train who sits down in a bare inch of space between two squashed travelers and eventually manages to lie down and go to sleep, advocating this as a "take a mile if they give you an inch" philosophy.

What is the point of becoming a cancer? What is gained by that? What is so strange is that in Bengal, there was a case where a king of Vishnupur (or so it is said) made a law that everyone had to chant japa. What came of it? Only a saying that equates chanting japa with forced labor.

The point is that religions evolve, and they can represent the highest possible aspirations for human beings and human society. They evolve, and this means that all elements of the human spirit are participating in the quest for God, as long as they reach for the ideal, even when they appear to be or claim to be atheistic or agnostic. This is why the atheists will always participate in the evolution of religion, where their criticism are well-founded, because the true man of faith knows that God embodies truth, justice and love. So it is not God or religion that are the delusions, it is falsehood, injustice and hatred, and all the rest of the stuff that religion has always been against, really, that are the delusions that must be done away with.

Hill reiterates the evolutionary point, too.

A virtue of a liberal-left perspective is that it views society through the frames of history and social justice. We know that the things we dislike about the world cannot be changed unless we comprehend the long-term forces that
helped bring them about, and why those disliked things seemed to others to have been a good idea (it's become fashionable to deride this as "relativism"; actually, it's just using your brain). As for social justice, our moral priority is to respect and assist the poorest and least powerful in society as a key part of fostering the common good.
Sounds a lot to me like the Christian left's option for the poor, based on the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, there were many Christians who believed that Marx was just trying to have Christ's "social gospel" without the religious bits. There is no reason to think that such an idea is necessarily outside the scope of religious beliefe. It is just that, as Hill goes on to say,

When social conservatives - who are often religious leaders - attack values they oppose, they aren't much bothered with why those values have evolved. For them it's mostly a question of identifying evils - or Evil - and saying that they shouldn't be allowed. In this they dodge all sorts of awkward questions. It's a formula designed for accusing institutions and individuals of foolishness or moral failings. These are bound to be part of any story of humankind, but concentrating too closely on them means that the bigger picture can be, sometimes conveniently, ignored.

Of course, the fact is that the majority of religious people do tend to be kanistha adhikaris, and kanisthas unfortunately can cause a lot of problems. And this unfortunately leads to the distorted picture of what God and religion are really all about. To be stuck in the Marxist critique of religion after all these years says a lot for the persuasiveness of Marx, but not much for the evolution of thought about religion on the Left.

Hill ultimately argues that Leftists should give a little more credit to people who are religious and not simply lump them all in to this box labelled "backward, foolish, credulous, reactionary" and all the rest of it. It is a welcome offer, but unfortunately does not do much to further understanding. Basically because he does not really understand.

One commentary on the Hill article illustrates the incomprehension. A few days ago, Bishop Desmond Tutu argued that the death penalty should be abolished around the world. A part of his argument was based in his belief that Christianity is a religion of forgiveness. That Christ taught to turn the other cheek, etc. This immediately resulted in a chorus of people telling of the evils Christianity has perpetrated and the nasty things Jesus said when he wasn't giving the Sermon on the Mount. What the critic failed to recognize was that Tutu was engaged in the active interpetation and creation of his religion. Christ's forgiveness is the important thing, and everything else is secondary. That is what Tutu's Christianity is about, and not the rest of the evil that was done in Christ's name. So to call him a fool is to deny him the agency that will help make the quality of forgiveness the ultimate concern at the core of Christianity.

The same thing comes up in all debates about religion. If a Muslim says, look at the good things in Islam, ten people will say, Yeah, but what about female circumcision and 9/11? If you say good things about Hinduism, people will say, "Yeah, what about caste and suttee?" All this is pointless. Religion evolves. Sometimes it heads down the wrong path. It is a human phenomenon like any other. What Gandhiji did was to further the evolution of Hinduism by saying, "There is stuff in Christianity that is True. We could use a dose of this in Hinduism." And the thing was, a lot of Hindus went, "That's right." And thus, Hinduism was changed for the better.

What the religious person does is seek life, truth and love as embodied in God. The faith of the religious person is that life, truth and love exist and that he or she can embody these ideals personally. For the religous person that is interpreted as being filled with the spirit of God. The community of saints is composed of those who share these goals. Religious people are engaged in a dialogue with each other about how to best reach them, and unfortunately there are many less evolved people who mistakenly think they can use coercion to those ends. But the fact that there are less evolved people who claim to represent religion, or God, or truth, is not a condemnation of religion, God or truth, or proof that any of these do not exist.

1 comment:

anuradha said...

I told you before that sometimes in debates I am forced to side with the atheïsts instead of theïsts that propose a dogmatic idea of what is God.
Religious people lose in many 'intellectual' debates, because they have lost the ability to think freely somewhere in the process, i.e they are not evolving. An intellectual liberal atheïst doesn't suffer from fear of being punished for thinking freely and so in many times holds stronger arguments to defend his propositions.

For the future I would like you to write more about how religion evolves and especially on how our religion evolved.
Some Jews and Christians believe that in Heaven they speak Hebrew, some Muslims teach that Allah prefers to speak Arabic and some of us say it is most definitley Sanskrit. But which Sanskrit ? I understood that Sanskrit also evolved ?

Secondly..... How to bring vaisnavism into modernity in a responsible manner ? Which traditional aspects can be neglected without losing the essence of it all ? Some like Advaita glorify Indian birth as being a few steps ahead, but I am quite happy with my western style of thinking and critical approach.