Friday, August 17, 2012 9:41 AM
This post originally
appeared at Chronicle.com.
a moth flies at night, it uses the moon and the stars to steer a straight path.
Those light sources are fixed and distant, so the rays always strike the moth's
multilensed eyes at the same angle, making them reliable for nocturnal
navigation. But introduce something else bright—a candle, say, or a
campfire—and there will be trouble. The light radiates outward, confusing the
moth and causing it to spiral ever closer to the blaze until the insect meets a
years Richard Dawkins has used the self-immolation of moths to explain
religion. The example can be found in his 2006 best seller, The God Delusion,
and it's been repeated in speeches and debates, interviews and blog posts.
Moths didn't evolve to commit suicide; that's an unfortunate byproduct of other
adaptations. In much the same way, the thinking goes, human beings embrace
religion for unrelated cognitive reasons. We evolved to search for patterns in
nature, so perhaps that's why we imagine patterns in religious texts. Instead
of being guided by the light, we fly into the flames.
implication—that religion is basically malevolent, that it "poisons
everything," in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens—is a standard
assertion of the New Atheists. Their argument isn't just that there probably is
no God, or that intelligent design is laughable bunk, or that the Bible is far
from inerrant. It's that religion is obviously bad for human beings, condemning
them to ignorance, subservience, and endless conflict, and we would be better
off without it.
you can know for sure, you have to figure out what religion does for us in the
first place. That's exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in
fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They're
applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover
whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more
cooperative, kinder. The scholars, many of them atheists themselves, generally
look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant,
fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific. Dawkins and company have been
no more charitable in return.
the field is still young and fairly small—those involved haven't settled on a
name yet, though "evolutionary religious studies" gets thrown
around—its findings could reshape a very old debate. Maybe we should stop
asking whether God exists and start asking whether it's useful to believe that
say someone gives you $10. Not a king's ransom, but enough for lunch. You're
then told that you can share your modest wealth with a stranger, if you like,
or keep it. You're assured that your identity will be protected, so there's no
need to worry about being thought miserly. How much would you give?
you're like most people who play the so-called dictator game, which has been
used in numerous experiments, you will keep most of the money. In a recent
study from a paper with the ominous title "God Is Watching You," the
average subject gave $1.84. Meanwhile, another group of subjects was presented
with the same choice but was first asked to unscramble a sentence that
contained words like "divine," "spirit," and
second group of subjects gave an average of $4.22, with a solid majority (64
percent) giving more than five bucks. A heavenly reminder seemed to make
subjects significantly more magnanimous. In another study, researchers found
that prompting subjects with the same vocabulary made some more likely to
volunteer for community projects. Intriguingly, not all of them: Only those who
had a specific dopamine receptor variant volunteered more, raising the
possibility that religion doesn't work for everybody.
similar experiment was conducted on two Israeli kibbutzes. The scenario was
more complicated: Subjects were shown an envelope containing 100 shekels
(currently about $25). They were told that they could choose to keep as much of
the money as they wished, but that another member of the kibbutz was being
given the identical option. If the total requested by the participants (who
were kept separated) exceeded 100 shekels, they walked away with nothing. If
the total was less than or equal to 100, they were given the money plus a bonus
based on what was left over.
kicker is that one of the kibbutzes was secular and one was religious. Turns
out, the more-devout members of the religious kibbutz, as measured by synagogue
attendance, requested significantly fewer shekels and expected others to do the
same. The researchers, Richard Sosis and Bradley Ruffle, ventured that "collective
ritual has a significant impact on cooperative decisions."
also a study that found that religious people were, in some instances, more
likely to treat strangers fairly. Or the multiple studies suggesting that
people who were prompted to think about an all-seeing supernatural agent were
less likely to cheat. Or the study of 300 young adults in Belgium that found that those who
were religious were considered more empathetic by their friends.
results of other studies are less straightforward. A Harvard Business
discovered that religious people were more likely to give to charity, but only
on the days they worshiped, a phenomenon he dubbed the "Sunday
Effect." Then there's the survey of how belief in the afterlife affected
crime rates in 67 countries. Researchers determined that countries with high
rates of belief in hell had less crime, while in those where the belief in hell
was low and the belief in heaven high, there was more crime. A vengeful deity
is better for public safety than a merciful one.
of that research settles the value of belief, and much of it is based on
assuming that certain correlations are meaningful or that particular techniques
(like the one used in the dictator-game study) actually prime what researchers
think they prime. And questions remain: How effective is religious belief,
really, if it needs to be prompted with certain words? And is the only thing
stopping you from robbing a liquor store really the prospect of eternal
a growing body of research suggests that religion or religious ideas, in
certain circumstances, in some people, can elicit the kind of behavior that is
generally good for society: fairness, generosity, honesty. At the very least,
when you read the literature, it becomes difficult to confidently assert that
religion, despite the undeniable evil it has sometimes inspired, is entirely
to read the rest.
Image by Vinoth Chandar,
licensed under Creative
Thursday, May 19, 2011 3:12 PM
Does it sometimes feel like your shower curtain is out to get you? The folks at Mental Floss explain the science behind the “shower curtain effect.”
Gliese 581d, the newly discovered planet that is capable of sustaining life, is about to get an earful. Two years ago, an Australian magazine collected messages from the people of planet Earth for their new galactic neighbors and began transmitting them. Erik K. Velan wants the aliens to know: “Apologies in advance for most of these messages. They are an example of our primitive humor.”
Are you in the market for a new car? Check out the classic Italian concept cars being auctioned off near the shores of Lake Como this month.
Richard Dawkins, atheist provocateur, has written a children’s book.
Who was the hippest cat in Montana? The Unabomber, of course.
Everyone—especially the atheists—is getting pumped for the apocalypse on Saturday.
Why aren’t we building “emotionally connected” cities?
This week’s jaw-dropper from Atlantic Wire: “Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP America and Chevron Corp—the “Big Five” oil companies—reported a cumulative total earning of $36 billion in the first quarter of this year. As Huffington Post writer Erich Pica points out that's “more than $200,000 every minute.”
The New Republic
: “The international community has never rushed to denounce repression, wherever it has taken place.”
Drivers and bus riders inhale lots of pollution during their commutes. Bikers huff even more—but they suffer fewer ill effects.
Do farms, golf courses and swimming pools belong in the desert?
Friday, July 10, 2009 1:10 PM
Parents, does the overt (and sometimes covert) Christianity of many summer camps give you pause? Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, feels your pain. According to a report in the UK current affairs site First Post, The Richard Dawkins Foundation is funding an atheist summer camp, and it sounds rather fantastic:
Alongside the more traditional activities of tug-of-war, swimming and canoeing, children at the five-day camp in Somerset will learn about rational scepticism, moral philosophy, ethics and evolution. Camp-goers aged eight to 17 will also be taught how to disprove phenomena such as crop circles and telepathy. In the Invisible Unicorn Challenge, any child who can prove that unicorns do not exist will win a £10 note - which features an image of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory—signed by Dawkins.
Wait, are we talking invisble unicorns or just plain unicorns? A challenge indeed.
Source: First Post
, licensed under
Wednesday, January 21, 2009 10:47 AM
For the past two weeks, 800 buses have run their routes through Britain’s streets emblazoned with the slogan, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The Atheist Bus Campaign is comedy writer Ariane Sherine’s response to a hellfire and brimstone advertisement she saw on a London bus. Her intention is to provide a positive, reassuring counterpoint—a little more “eat drink and be merry”, a little less “for tomorrow you die.” (The slogan’s “probably” is more a nod to truth-in-advertising than to agnosticism.)
Richard Dawkins’ involvement with the campaign, however, belies the slogan’s purportedly “lighthearted and peaceful” tone. At the January 6 launch of the Atheist Bus Campaign he contended, “They have to take offense, it is the only weapon they’ve got. . . they’ve got no arguments.”
As Dawkins predicted, the campaign has succeeded in ruffling several believers in the UK. One devout London bus driver refused to drive buses carrying the ad. The Advertising Standards Authority has received nearly 150 complaints, which, if the ASA pursues the matter formally, could put some hapless British bureaucrats in the uncomfortable position of having to rule on the probability of the existence of God.
Other theists are self-consciously not rising to the bait, with long-winded articles that might as well be subtitled “Hey Everyone, Notice Us Being the Bigger People.” As the Guardian’s Andrew Brown notes, the campaign does little to promote intellectual discussion, instead waging sandbox warfare with a slicker, grown up take on the classic “I know you are but what am I?” And, as any good recess monitor would advise, when someone’s trying to get a rise out of you the best response is often no response. Besides, writes Ship of Fools contributing editor Stephen Tomkins, “If God is anything like as big and clever as we claim he is, he can probably take it.”
Adding to the glut of bus puns, Brown asks, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, but where do they lead?” Indeed, proselytizing seems a needless mission for atheists, some of whom are not on board the atheist bus for this very reason. Moreover, the slogan’s fatuity is especially vexing at a time when, whether or not you believe in an afterlife, there’s a hell of a lot to worry about in this life. Perhaps the money and energy being spent on both the Atheist Bus Campaign and the Christian ads that inspired it could be used more constructively to jointly address these worldly woes, since, as Brown puts it, “being told not to worry because there probably isn’t a God is about as useful as being told that Jesus will come back and make it all all right.”
Friday, August 08, 2008 10:42 AM
Is anyone else going meme crazy these days? Maybe it’s just some strange conflation of meme-talk here at the Utne Reader office, but if I hear (or read or sniff) one more reference to a meme, I’m going to drink everyone’s milkshakes, and then make all the straws into my new bicycle.
I know: I should pity the meme. These are heady times for a term coined in 1976. Back when evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gave memes a name in his book The Selfish Gene, there was no world wide web to speed along cultural transmission. Memes, as Dawkins defined them, are self-propagating cultural phenomena such as “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” He likened them to genes. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” Dawkins explains how Darwinian principles, like natural selection, govern that evolution.
These days, all your memes are belong to us, and by us I mean the Internets, by which I mean the web. Linguistic and media-driven memes in particular spread swiftly online. If you don’t pay attention (see: if you have anything else to do during the day except troll online), you can miss a whole meme-elution. Not being up to meme-speed = awkward social encounters. Picture yourself standing in a room, tepidly smiling as everyone riffs about some walrus that lost its bucket. Getting the jokes in the late-night monologue? Forget it.
“One week: That’s how much time an Internet meme needs to propagate, become its own opposite, and then finally collapse back in on itself,” Christopher Beam writes on Slate. Beam based his observation on the lifecycle of the wildly popular “Barack Obama is your new bicycle” meme.
That well-known meme all started with a website of the same name, and on August 5 (drum roll, please) Gotham published a Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle book. Website creator and Wired contributing editor Matthew Honan isn’t the only meme-generator to get a book deal lately. This March, Gawker reported that Random House paid at least $350,000 for the right to publish Stuff White People Like, based on (you guessed it!) the website of the same name.
All this makes me wish Chuck Norris would step in and deliver some round-house regulation. Memes, old-fashioned memes, naturally-occurring memes, have a lot to tell us about how culture stalls and grows. Rewarding senseless Internet memes, however, with two things our society likes very much—cash and publicity—will only motivate imitators. If Internet memes become a popularity contest with a cash reward (exploiting a lowest-common-denominator urge to be in on the joke)—are they still memes? Out in the blogosphere, you already can spot people discussing how to propagate preferred memes. In the inevitable march of the Internet memes, I just hope the best viral marketer wins.
Images by Rachel Pumroy, Women, Fire & Dangerous Things, and Peter Mandik, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 28, 2008 4:18 PM
Albert Einstein once said insanity is going to the same conferences over and over and expecting a different result. Or at least he said something to that effect. The National Conference of American Atheists, held recently in Minneapolis, could fit neatly within this maxim, except for one thing: the audience was overwhelmingly, unexpectedly young. When the commencement speaker asked all students to stand, close to a quarter of the seats in the hotel ballroom emptied. Two high school kids sitting against the back wall (free from school in honor of Good Friday, ironically) were so animated that they would have fit in better at a hip hop show than a conference.
Many of the speakers boasted about the large turnout of young people, pointing to a recent Pew report that suggests a growing trend of skepticism toward religion in people under 50. Among the 10-plus speakers, however, only two seemed intent on engaging the younger members of the audience. One, predictably, was scientist and author Richard Dawkins, whose eloquent and erudite manner is overshadowed only by the rationality of his oratory. Dawkins is a go-to guy for atheist talking points, and there was plenty of furious note taking in the audience during his presentation, presumably to stockpile ammunition for future debates. The other was physicist Lawrence Krauss, whose lecture on dark matter and energy was informative and surprisingly accessible to the clueless layperson.
Though widely different in focus, Dawkins’ and Krauss’ presentations had one central similarity: a simplicity of argument. Simplicity is the basis of atheism, and it’s also what many rational thinkers find appealing. There is no room for ritualistic mystery in atheism. It is adherent to the laws of nature and humanism, nothing more. To atheists, the mystery of the universe is not a testament to the power of a god, but a thing to be studied and ultimately unlocked.
Unfortunately, this simplicity was lost on most of the speakers, who were more intent on pointing out the flaws in religion than they were in making a case for the inherent rationality of atheism. The defensive vitriol leveled at the religious powers-that-be effectively muddied the waters. Using atheism as a takedown of religion makes basic belief systems complicated. It is difficult to address the many failings of the world’s religions without entering the labyrinthine, incense-scented halls of ancient mythology. Going down that road serves only to add to the confusion of people unfamiliar with what atheism really is, exacerbating the misled belief that it is a cult or a religion. In fact, atheism is the antithesis of such belief-oriented groups. Next year’s conference would do well to scrap the bathetic victimhood and pointless navel-gazing, and concentrate on nabbing more speakers like Dawkins and Krauss.
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