Friday, March 03, 2006

Dim Sum

In his latest book Breaking the Spell, a naturalistic investigation into our religious urges, Dan Dennett refers to his fellow atheists and agnostics as "Brights", suggesting "Supers" for the spiritually and supernaturally-minded − thereby avoiding the rather obvious implied alternative.

To save myself the trouble of actually having to read this book, I have been working my way through the growing number of published reviews. The most amusing was Andrew Brown's in the Guardian:

"Daniel Dennett writes early in this book: "I for one am not in awe of your faith. I am appalled by your arrogance, by your unreasoning certainty that you have all the answers" - and he's not talking about Richard Dawkins."

The trouble with Dennett − very much like Richard Dawkins − is that he tends to have an unreflectingly narcisistic approach to his own lines of argument. Rather than dallying to explore the interesting territory around their margins, he drives them forward with polemical zeal. He should have no trouble convincing the already convinced, but in this instance has gamely chosen to target the unconvinceable − America's ascendent hordes of righteous Bible-belters.

Dawkins it was who first coined the term meme, now in widespread abuse. Dennett posits two distinct theories of (religious) meme transmission: The Sweet Tooth, in which the meme ultimately confers a survival benefit on the minds it inhabits, and the Simbiont, where an essentially parasitical body of ideas evolves to promote its own survival through the medium of mental hosts. (Back in 2004 I myself referred to these alternatives as the mind gene and the mind virus respectively.)

Dennett apparently also has a go at de-bugging the persistent myth surrounding the moral superiority of believers. Most of them he suggests, don't actually believe in the more outrageously contradictory and irrational aspects of their faiths; instead they profess belief, which amounts to believing in belief − the notion that there are sound reasons for having (or appearing to have) certain assumptions regardless of whether they are true or not. This may be one reason an analysis of prison populations does little to bear out the notion that believers are better behaved. (And in the US atheists have the lowest divorce rates, evangelicals the highest.)

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