Sunday, February 26, 2006

Breaking the Spell

Last week I read Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell. Despite some bad--and largely inept (rebutted here)--reviews, I liked it. Dennett demonstrates just how powerful a theoretical bulldozer evolutionary theory is. Most of the objections to it center on the fact that Dennett is an atheist and takes a naturalistic approach to the subject. I have no problem with this. I did find it a little frustrating that the book deals mainly with questions to which there seem to be no answers as of yet, but apparently, even the questions themselves were enough to raise the wrath of the reviewers, as Dennett himself predicted.

Even if, as one reviewer put it, it is evidently human to believe in something beyond what one can perceive, this does not mean that there is any reality that corresponds to that belief. There is a wide variety of cognitive heuristics which can misfire to create the illusion of the supernatural. Nor is Dennett at odds with human culture and ethics, as he is caricatured by his detractors. The biological basis of religion he is searching for is not a simple matter of biological determinism which mechanically produces the articles of faith. Rather, he is looking for the selective advantage which might have encouraged the development of certain traits which make people prone to religious belief. But once established, religion will develop according to its own purposes, which may have little or nothing to do with biological causes. Religion, as a cultural phenomena, develops along a line which is orthogonal to biological necessity. It follows its own rules, which may confer individual or tribal benefits, or which may only serve the purpose of memetic replication. In other words, the religion survives because people adopt and spread it, whether it does them any good or not. Dennett's question, then, is: does religion actually do us any good?

Dennett separates pure belief in God from belief in belief, the latter being the conviction that it is good to believe in God, regardless of whether God actually exists. Belief in belief is based upon the perception that religion is the basis of morality. For some it can be, for others it can be a license to kill. As I have pointed out before, evil men are evil precisely because they consider their actions justified. They do not consider themselves evil, and for them, religion can provide the encouragement they need to pursue their crimes. It is more likely that religion is the repository rather than the source of morality. You will find there what you put into it.

Against the litany of attrocities perpetuated in the name of God, the same old tired trope is paraded out: Nazism and Communism were secular ideologies, and look what they did. But if mere avoidance of God is all that is required to make one secular, then Scientology and Heaven's Gate do not count as religions. Hitler invoked Norse mythology and founded the Church of the Reich, open only to party members, with a copy of Mein Kampf on the altar. Stalin was a seminary student, and the Communists invoked the inevitability of Dialectical Materialism in place of the power of God. As late as the 80's, Russian children were being told that Lenin is the friend of all little children. Nonsense--Lenin had been stuffed and mounted in Red Square for sixty years by this point, and was, for a dedicated materialist, in no condition to be anyone's friend. For the Nazis, there was no God but the State, and the Fuhrer was its prophet. Both Naziism and Communism were wholesale distributers of garbage mysticism and woo-woo science. Both alternately courted and attacked religions--yes, the communists were quite willing to play the religious card when they needed to arouse the support of the people, as Stalin did when the Germans invaded. And when they attacked religion, is was not because they opposed religion per se, but because other religions were competitors on the same playing field. There are many things I would call these ideologies. Rational is not one of them.

My main criticism of Dennett--and of other atheist philosophers and scientists--is that they are preaching to the converted. This is too bad, because I believe they have something to say to believers, even if believers have no intention of dropping their beliefs. Dennett, like Richard Dawkins, strongly suspects that religion is a parasitic meme, an idea or behaviour which spreads across the population but actually damages its hosts, like a virus. Even if you consider this a gross simplification of religion, I believe that there is a type of religion whose sole purpose is only to spread and convert. I call this degenerate religion because, in the process of streamlining itself for rapid transmission and adoption, the religion sheds many of the very attributes that make it worth having.

A good analogy would be a product with a exceptional reputation. Eager to expand their markets, the manufacturer outsources to sweat shops that will produce the goods cheaply and in large quantities--but the resultant product is now garbage. All that remains is the brand name. For a while the market expands, based upon reduced price and wider availability, but at a hidden cost. The product still bears the name, but is in fact no longer the product that its reputation is based on. The result is an empty brand.

When the primary goal of a religion is memetic replication, all other goals become secondary. Assuming a religion was a positive benefit to its believers (and there are some religions that could only be improved by being watered down,) the distortions introduced by a rapid spread will produce a stunted version of the faith. Even for the most ethical religion, it may suddenly become acceptable to lie, cheat, steal, and kill in the name of spreading the faith. The more demanding (i.e. higher cost) aspects of the religion are dropped. New converts loudly proclaim themselves members of the faith--but the faith is no longer what it was. They are converts in name only. The ethical and spiritual aspects of the religion have not been passed on, and, under the sheer weight of numbers, these new converts pull the religion away from its roots. A large following of believers with superficial understanding of the faith is lethal; a religion that does not know itself and sustain a deep wisdom is dead. The religion is hollowed out. It has a huge body of followers, but it has lost its soul.

It would be far better for believers to preach the transcendent values of justice and truth, rather than trying to get others to join their religion. At least that way, when they did win a convert, they would be far more likely to gain the genuine article, rather than some flag waving cretin. What I see when I view clips of outraged mobs in the Muslim world protesting the Danish cartoons are not angry believers, but the same sort of ignorant yabos that tear up stadiums during soccer matches. Like the face-painting flower children at anti-globalization protests, these protestors haven't the foggiest notion of what the real issues are. The cartoons are not instance of idolatry, but the exact opposite. Idolatry would be creating a statue of Mohammed and then bowing in worship to it. Or working yourself into a frenzy over the depiction of Mohammed, as if Mohammed were God Himself. This is Islam as mere trade mark. I can think of no greater offense to the prophet.

But transcendent values are in the public domain, transcendent precisely because they belong to no one and every one. You cannot brand them, or charge admission. They are secular values as well as religious values. Worse, the attempt to brand these values can weaken them. There are very sound and convincing reasons to embrace these values, and understanding these reasons helps you to understand the values themselves. Invoking the Will of God, and blind orthodoxy, is one of the weakest arguments. It's a mind stopper, stunting the growth of mature judgement. And since God is so forgiving, maybe he'll let me off the hook this one time. Religion does not preclude the possibility of ethical maturity, but religion lite foists the heavy lifting off to external authority. A large part of knowing how is knowing why.

Knowing why, however, means coming to a naturalistic understanding. While it is true that faith may have motivated many scientists to undertake their scientific explorations, they did so because they understood that a purely supernatural entity is inscrutable. The true signs of divine will were to be found in nature, not in any ancient work of human authors--the truths of the natural world cannot be tampered with. Yet, having discerned the natural order, the role of God was pushed farther and farther into the horizon. Truth and justice became good in and of themselves; divine will, if it existed at all, became just the icing on a cake that was already quite filling.

Rather than squander their resources on occult sideshows like Intelligent Design, religionists might be better to join forces with the likes of Dennett and Dawkins. Properly directed, their somewhat skewed approach may yield some genuinely useful results. But to achieve anything useful, they would first have to swear an allegiance to the truth, rather than merely court public opinion. That this even needs to be said reveals the sorry state religion is in.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Against Glurge

For some reason, I seem to get a lot of those sickly sweet chain letters, usually falsely attributed to children dying of cancer, a minister, or to some famous person who has gone out of their way to say they wouldn't get caught dead writing this crap and foisting it on the world. A quick check on Snopes usually debunks this stuff, and I dutifully forward the link to the person who sent me the email--unless, of course, I have no reason to maintain ties with the person, in which case I just add them to the spam filter. The word that has been coined for this spam is glurge.

It may seem somewhat cold and distant to despise this stuff, but I have good reasons to do so. Not only are these emails spam, almost always false, and known to be major carriers of viruses and trojans, but the sentimentality they represent is type of false emotion. They are not love for a person, but the idea of love for the idea of a person. I have heard works of sentimentality called emoto-porn, which I think is a good term for them. Like porn, sentimentality is love without the bother of other people. Loving someone else means that you actually have to put up with their human frailties. Sentimentality, on the other hand, is a means of climbing up your own brain stem to ring the bell of the pleasure center, a cheap seretonin rush. Serial killers cannot love, but they're very sentimental. Even Hitler wallowed in sentimentality, and the German people were fooled into thinking that this was evidence of a deeper humanity.

Wherever I detect the strong reek of sentimentality, I also see glaring disfunction. Here are the parents who makes grand plans for what they think their child should want, rather than actually taking the trouble to find out what the child really wants and has an aptitude for. Here is the couple who plan the most ostentatious wedding ceremony, complete with overblown and lengthy romantic vows, only to break up within a couple of years because neither one of them can live up to the romantic ideal. Here is the poet or writer who sets down on the page the depth of his adoration for his lover, while actively despising her in daily life. And here too is the follower of religion who wallows in the warm glow of divine love so casually assumed, and takes this as a sign of certain salvation and a license to condemn others.

Sentimentality is the idolatry of the beloved, but the problem with idolatry is that it is false. It is worship of the image, but not of what the image represents. Loving an image is easy, because the image does, says, and thinks exactly what you want it to. It is, after all, your own creation. Real people, on the other hand, have this exasperating habit of doing what they want, whether you like it or not. Some people have even gone to the trouble of killing the real person because that person keeps spoiling the fantasy. This should tell you just how far sentimentality is from love.

King Lear is Shakespeare's grandest tragedy, but it is also his unequivocal condemnation of sentimentality. Lear partitions his kingdom amongst his three daughters according to how well they can wax poetically about their love for him. Reagan and Gonoril deliver long and impassioned testimonials of love for their father--it's easy for them to perform, because they really don't care. Cordelia, on the other hand, cannot heave her heart into her mouth. She loves her father "according to my bond, no more nor less." This is the unburnished truth. Lear banishes her and gives everything to Reagan and Gonoril, who then proceed to strip him of everything he has left, including his own narcissistic vanity. On the heath, Lear is like a god commanding the storm, but he is also mad and naked; the grandiosity of the gods is not for mortal men, and will soon consume a mortal frame. When at last his pride breaks like a fever, he is left a simple old man. All his haughty grandiloquence is gone. He is left with simple and direct words, but these words are true. Still, the cost of his old folly is pending; he loses all that he loves when he has barely discovered what love is.

Life is bittersweet--that's what we've evolved to deal with, and once you grow into it, it's the finest taste imaginable. Glurge is lard loaded with icing sugar; it doesn't taste like much, but it will still clog your heart and rot your pancreas. Susan Sontag was on to something when she talked about Illness as Metaphor, though she never got around to diabetes. But there it is; a diet of sweets leads to diabetes, which can compromise the circulatory system, and leave you blind, sick, and crippled. If cancer was the metaphor for the twentieth century, diabetes is the metaphor for the twenty-first. We live in a sickly sweet miasma of political correctness, sentimentality, religious feelings, and sensitivity. We don't need to validate all our feelings; frankly, a lot of our feelings are invalid, caused by poor upbringing, weird beliefs, and bad brain chemistry. Just because you feel something doesn't make it real. Fuck Star Wars, forget stretching out with your feelings, and take a moment to stop and think! Realizing that your current depression is just plain bullshit can be a singularly uplifting experience.

Sentimentality trades reality for fantasy, but the fantasy inevitably crumbles, leaving you with nothing. Personally, I love fantasy, but there is a time and a place for it, and I do not want the world to be obscured by a veil of my own making. Love is hard. Sentimentality is easy, and for that most of all, I distrust it. It is as easy as buying the first Hallmark card that falls off the shelf, or clicking send to forward that piece of glurge. If you want to show you care, create something, or choose something carefully. And if you must send glurge, write your own--although, you may find, as Lear did, that real love is more plain than sentimentality would have it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Choosing to Be Offended

In the past few weeks, a few cartoons published in a Danish Newspaper have aroused a storm of outrage amongst Muslim extremists. They have learned very well how to exploit political correctness, a mailed fist wrapped in velvet which seeks to limit public discourse only to those subjects and expressions which will not offend someone or other. The politically 'sensitive' make much of the decision of the Danish newspaper, and other European newspapers, to print these cartoons. But no mention is made of the choice by those offended to take offense--as if such offense were beyond choice, but a simple given. The debate is thereby not just conceded, but completely forbidden. It seems that Muslims are to be treated like children, whose delicate ears are too tender to be subjected to the conversation of adults. Behind the apparently sensitive, motherly aspect of the politically correct lurks a much older, more sinister figure: the European colonial who, taking up the White Man's Burden, spares his less gifted brown charges from the rigour of civilized thought. The insult to Islam is not the cartoons, but the carefully orchestrated outrage of a few religious demagogues, who encourage this caricature of Muslims as infantile invalids too feeble to withstand the rough and tumble exchange of ideas so common in the West.

I would like to take a moment to talk about the purpose of humour. Laughter is the safety valve of sanity, our means of coping with the absurdity and contradictions of our beliefs and those of others. In a joke you can say what you could not say straight out--the conversation is not given the weight of a serious debate. The joke can be outrageously false or outrageously true. It's bullshit, but bullshit that comes labelled as such, an invitation to play with the subject without serious commitment. Best of all, humour deflates pomposity. The king farts, the gods fall on their faces, the wise men babble. Humour offends pride, but as virtually all religions agree, pride exists to be offended and defeated. If you've lost your sense of humour, you've probably lost much of your humanity.

Pride is the deadliest of sins because it is born of the deep and abiding sense of inferiority, an overcompensation for real or perceived inadequacy. It is a bulwark mounted against criticism, which, if heeded, might lead to real change and correct the faults that criticism addresses. If one of the cartoons depicts Mohammed as wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, the question that should be asked is who put that turban on him--the cartoonist, or the fanatics who seek to make Islam synonymous with intolerance and violence? If those who do evil go to hell, there is a special, deeper hell reserved for those who do evil in God's name, who make good seem evil and evil good.

The governments of Islamic countries are milking this for all it is worth. There's nothing quite like a foreign slight to distract the people from the failings of their own government, and as the Nazis demonstrated, nothing like a scapegoat to make your own people unite. The scapegoat, of course, is never the problem. Denmark is irrelevant to the Muslim world; no one would even have noticed these cartoons had the cartoons not been reproduced and widely distributed amongst Muslims. Also included in the cartoons being circulated amongst Muslims were three additional cartoons which are far more outrageous, which no one can trace the origin of and which have not appeared in any major publication that anyone can name. In short, the riots and protests are the product of a deliberate propaganda campaign. As long as everyone focuses their energies upon such fictional monsters, the real problems will never be solved.