Monday, November 1, 2010

Book Review: The Religion Virus

When in doubt, preach!

Posted: 30 Oct 2010 10:53 AM PDT

Recent years have seen an extraordinary phenomenon. A modern-day cult is spreading rapidly across the globe, advancing from its US homeland on the back of a small army of evangelical preachers. People of all backgrounds, but particularly the young and the wealthy, are recruited to its ranks – only to become in turn preachers themselves.

I am talking, of course, of the Cult of Apple.

But what induces cult members to preach their gospel? New research by David Gal and Derek Rucker, at the Kellog School of Management at Northwestern University, suggests that shaking a person’s confidence actually can make them more likely to go out and preach.

They took 106 undergraduate Mac users, all of whom believed that Macs were superior to Windows-based PCs, and put half of them in a state of trepidation by asking them to write about a situation in which they felt uncertain. The other half wrote about a situation in which they felt certain.

Then they were asked to imagine that they were talking to a Windows-user who was happy with his or her PC. Half had to imagine a conversation with a Windows-user who was open to the idea of switching, and half to a Windows-user who was closed-minded.

How likely would they be to try to persuade the Windows user to switch to a Mac? Well, it turned out that it depended both on their own state of mind, and on whether the target was open to persuasion.

As the graph shows, compared with confident individuals, those in a doubtful frame of mind would be slightly less likely to try to persuade a close-minded person. But they would be much more likely to try to persuade an open-minded person.

This wasn’t a one off, either. They did another experiment which showed that students would spend much longer composing a persuasive message to convert someone to their own dietary habits (carnivorous, vegetarian, vegan) if they were feeling doubtful. They got a similar result after asking students to write about their views on animal experiments.

The authors link this effect to the classic study by Leon Festinger, who infiltrated an apocalyptic cult back in the 1950s. When the end-time predictions of the cult leader failed, the previously-secretive cult members responded by turning to active advocacy and proselytisation.

There’s also the case of George Alan Rekers, a prominent homophobic campaigner who recently was revealed to have hired a rent boy.

Gal and Recker reckon that doubt about closely held attitudes and beliefs can adversely affect your view of yourself. Cult members whose faith has taken a hit proselytise as a way to resolve their own doubt, and thus restore their self-image. And they finish with a warning:

Finally, the present research also offers a warning to anyone on the receiving end of an advocacy attempt. Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence, the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.


ResearchBlogging.orgGal, D., & Rucker, D. (2010). When in Doubt, Shout!: Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610385953

Creative Commons LicenseThis article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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Book Review: The Religion Virus

Posted: 29 Oct 2010 09:21 PM PDT

I don’t say this about very many books, but Craig A. James’s The Religion Viruscan facilitate a wholesale change in the way we think about religion. By itself, it stands strong and makes a great argument. When it works together with the already growing “God Virus” meme, it forms a powerful meme-plex, and gives us a great framework for examining and talking about religion.

The subtitle – Why we believe in God: An evolutionist explains religion’s incredible hold on humanity – might confuse some readers. Indeed, I expected to read about cognitive mechanisms or the evolution of human psychology. And to be fair, chapter 7 does cover one possible explanation for our seemingly innate attraction to religion. But that’s not what this book is primarily about.

Don’t let that deter you from picking up a copy, though. The Religion Virusis an engaging, entertaining, and educational journey from the earliest animist religions to modern Christianity, with a focus on the meme as a unit of “idea evolution.” James takes us on a guided tour of religion’s development as both a reaction and a shaping force in history.

Since memes are a relatively new concept, with an evolving definition, James helps us out by discussing and explaining his use of the word. In short, a meme is an idea. More specifically, it’s an idea that is passed from human to human and/or generation to generation, and “evolves” as it moves through space and time. He is quick to point out that it does not evolve precisely the same way as organisms, but the similarities are striking enough to use the term “evolution” in a colloquial sense and be well justified.

The most important characteristic of memes is that they have “survival ability.” A meme’s survival is not dependent on its truth value. Rather, it relies on two main factors: Message and Motivation. A virulent meme must communicate a Message that makes people want to remember it. It must also generate some kind of Motivation so we want to tell other people, who find it compelling and pass it on to their friends.

In a delightfully ironic anecdote, James uses the popular meme “survival of the fittest” to illustrate that truth value is not as important as “catchiness.” Survival of the fittest is a vague and ultimately inaccurate way to sum up natural selection. “The correlation between specific genetic characteristics and reproductive success” is much more accurate, but it’s much harder to remember, and much less appealing. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

The first section of the book concerns eight major ideas from the millenia preceding the birth of Jesus, each of which can be viewed as an evolutionary step in the meme that would become Christianity. When they are viewed in order through the lens of cultural and philosophical development, they present a concise and appealing account of how religion in general, and Christianity specifically, came to exist.

The earliest religionists were animists and spiritualists. They believed that “spirits” were a part of nature, and that each different “thing” – from rocks to trees to people – had its own spirit. When people prayed for something specific, like rain for instance, they prayed to the spirit who had influence over that sort of thing. While this was reasonable and practical for “primitive” society, it became a bit unwieldy as we moved into cities and increased our repertoire of abstract concepts like justice, wisdom, or temperance. This change of environment provided the “evolutionary niche” for the “General Purpose God” meme. Gods could now preside over multiple spheres of influence, or broad concepts.

The evolution of pre-Christianity from henotheism to monotheism is especially interesting. I can also see how it could be very threatening to believers. Using passages from the Bible and references to contemporary cultures, James gives us a clear understanding of Yahweh’s evolution, beginning as a local war deity, becoming an angry and jealous god who demanded exclusive worship among the gods, and finally a deity who claimed to be the only true god. In its mature form, this is the Monotheism Meme. Other notable developments in the Christian meme included the Intolerance Meme, the Godly Origin of Morals Meme, and finally, the Asexual Meme.

We are also introduced to the idea of a meme-plex, which is roughly defined as a conglomerate of memes, some of which provide foundational support, and all of which can be said to exist in a kind of symbiosis. Religion is a meme-plex. For example, in Christianity, the doctrines of heaven and hell work together with feelings of guilt inspired by morality doctrines, making believers more likely to adhere to both doctrines than they would be to either one individually.

Next, James explains Paul’s unique influence on the Christian meme – especially the popularization of “The Globalization Meme,” which is best exemplified in The Great Commission. He also discusses Augustine’s unique and powerful addition of the “Guilt Meme.” At the end of each section, we are presented with a systematic overview of how new memes interact with and reinforce older memes, making Christianity a stronger and more virulent force with each new addition.

For linguists, Chapter Five will probably be the source of some dispute (good-natured, I hope!). Defying both Gould and Pinker (evolutionary psychologists), James suggests an alternate explanation for the evolution of language: “[M]emes evolved as a new mechanism for evolution. Memes replace genes as the primary adaptive mechanism for humans.”

The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture,by Darrel W. Ray, is written in a similarly accessible style. Ray deals primarily with the mechanisms of the God meme, not its history or evolution. (See my review here.)

Taken together, these two books form a cohesive account of religion’s origins, history, and virulence. I mention this now because Chapter Six of The Religion Virusdiscusses religion’s “immunity system,” specifically listing six meme components which work together as a meme-plex to make Christianity virtually impermeable to attack from the outside. When the mechanics of the The God Virusare paired with the classifications from The Religion Virus,the resulting “eureka moment” is enough to make even the most scholarly atheist’s head spin. In the interest of “intellectual synergy,” I have to recommend that everyone read both of these books as if they were designed to be companions. They might as well have been.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 deal with more contemporary issues: “Why is Religion So Appealing?” “The Atheist’s Paradox.” “Religion, Technology and Government.” These chapters seem to be an epilogue to the main presentation, and serve to expand our vision and take in the whole picture in the light of modern technology, global communication, and the monster that is the blogosphere.

Throughout the book, there are brief “mini-chapters” called Interludes. Most of them are interesting little anecdotes or asides dealing with recently introduced material. While none of them are strictly necessary or foundational to the topic, they do provide some personal, emotional, and practical insights into the real-world impact of The Religion Virus. I was particularly moved by the account of James’s Aunt Carolyn, who became an atheist at an advanced age after a powerful life experience.

The meme of religion and God as viruses is spreading, and I think that’s a good thing. The analogy is so good that I believe it deserves the same kind of linguistic status as that of a computer virus. When The God Virusand The Religion Virusare taken as companion works, the resulting overview creates a kind of synergy. The two perspectives on the same meme are exceptionally powerful.

The Religion Virus: Why We Believe in God: An Evolutionist Explains Religion’s Incredible Hold on Humanityadds to a growing selection of books for the “casual non-believer” — those of us without biology or anthropology degrees. A quick and easy read, it provides a general framework and vocabulary for non-believers (and probably certain more liberal believers) to think about and discuss religion through history. At 208 pages, it’s short enough that most readers will be able to finish it in a couple of sittings, and yet it is still packed with a lot of good information.

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FFRF mulls appeal of Colorado Day of Prayer decision

Posted: 29 Oct 2010 08:57 PM PDT

In November 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and four of its more than 400 Colorado members sued Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. for officially proclaiming May 1, 2008, as the Colorado Day of Prayer: "Whereas, in 2008, the National Day of Prayer acknowledges Psalm 28:7 — ‘The Lord is my strength and shield, my heart trusts in Him, and I am helped;’ " the proclamation said in part.

The plaintiffs alleged that Ritter’s action was government endorsement of religion. The state Day of Prayer proclamation was made in tandem with the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a Christian evangelical organization based in Colorado Springs and chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

On Oct. 28, Colorado District Judge R. Michael Mullins dismissed the suit and upheld the constitutionality of Ritter’s proclamation. The court concluded that gubernatorial proclamations are issued without any thought or analysis, including official proclamations issued to the National Day of Prayer Task Force, as a means of giving “open access to the Governor’s Office.”

Because official proclamations are casually issued using the governor’s official seal, the court concluded that a reasonable observer would not think that the governor supported or endorsed the causes touted in the proclamations. The court’s holding that such proclamations do not lend support to the annual Colorado Day of Prayer contradicted the perceptions of even the supporters of the Day of Prayer.

Richard L. Bolton, FFRF’s litigation attorney, finds the court’s endorsement analysis unpersuasive. "The court ignored in its analysis the undisputed fact that proclamations are requested from the Governor’s Office for the very reason that they give the appearance of official endorsement. Groups would not request official proclamations if they did not provide sanction and credibility to their agendas, including the mission of the National Day of Prayer Task Force," Bolton said.

"The court found as a matter of fact that members of the National Day of Prayer Task Force believe that ‘state honorary proclamations issued by governors lend the governors’ support to the National Day of Prayer.’ The court also found that ‘the purpose of the private organizers of the Colorado Day of Prayer, including the National Day of Prayer Task Force, is to encourage prayer,’ " Bolton said.

Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor called the decision disappointing and said an appeal is likely. "No governor has the right to exhort citizens to pray, to set aside an entire day for prayer, much less an entire day for prayer every year."

Gaylor added, "As president, Thomas Jefferson said the Constitution did not give him the right to direct the conscience of his constituents over religious ritual and belief. How then can Governor Ritter feel he possesses that right. He was elected governor, not preacher."

Ritter, a Democrat, is not running for reelection. He’s a former prosecutor who with his wife served in Zambia in the late 1980s as a Catholic missionary. He’s also strongly opposed to abortion rights.

In his decision, Mullins claimed "there is almost no relationship between the National Day of Prayer Task Force and the Governor’s Office. The State does not examine the purposes of the National Day of Prayer Task Force before issuing its proclamation, and is not making a determination of what activities are ‘religious.’ ”

The judge found, however, that Governor Ritter personally appeared in 2007 at a National Day of Prayer celebration at the Capitol, sponsored by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, where he read his annual proclamation. Six weeks before this appearance, Governor Ritter reportedly met with Day of Prayer organizers and prayed with them, according to the judge’s decision.

“The Governor’s participation in the 2007 National Day of Prayer activities was planned and known in advance; the Colorado Day of Prayer organizers noted as early as April 12, 2007, that Governor Ritter would be part of their program,” the judge further found as a matter of fact.

FFRF has successfully challenged the National Day of Prayer in federal court. On April 15, 2010, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the federal law designating a National Day of Prayer and requiring a National Day of Prayer proclamation by the president violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment. The Obama administration is appealing the judge’s ruling.

According to Bolton, the Colorado court tried without success to unbundle the evangelical purpose of the National Day of Prayer Task Force from the governor’s official proclamations. The court stated that “generally, because the purpose of honorary proclamations is to acknowledge events as requested by private groups and individuals and is not an endorsement of their purposes, the purpose of the National Day of Prayer Task Force in requesting the proclamations cannot be directly ascribed to the Defendants.”

"The court’s attempted reasoning ignores the reality that the official ‘acknowledgement’ of the Governor’s Office is not intended by the Governor’s Office or requesting parties as a simple calendar of upcoming events," Bolton said. "Proclamations are issued by the governor with the knowledge and understanding that private groups like the National Day of Prayer Task Force will tout such proclamations as an official endorsement of their purpose."

Gaylor said further study is needed before deciding whether to appeal. "The Foundation sincerely thanks our co-plaintiffs Mike Smith, David Habecker, Timothy Bailey and Jeff Baysinger, along with attorneys Rich Bolton and Bob Tiernan, for all their work so far. We also couldn’t defend the Constitution like we do without members’ continuing contributions to our Legal Fund."

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