Friday, October 31, 2008

Most Atheists are Wrong: Religion doesn't cause all violence (part 1)

I strongly disagree with one of the most widely-held beliefs of the Atheist community: That religion is at the root of so many of the world's problems. In my opinion, this is a specious argument, a bad case of reversing cause and effect.

When I started historical research for my book, The Religion Virus, I was a "standard Atheist" in this regard: It was plain to me that religion is the root of much of the violence and hatred in the world. I read Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, and was properly outraged at the terrible things done in the name of religion.

But, as my studies took me deeper and deeper into the world's history, I began to doubt this "stock" answer. The more I learned, the more I realized I was wrong. I began to question my assumptions about religion's negative role in society: Was religion really the cause? Or was it just a reflection of deeper forces? If we could take away religion, would people really start behaving better? Or would they just keep doing the same things, using a new excuse?

Memes can only survive when they fit the "ecosystem" in which they live – if a meme contradicts a basic human instinct, it becomes extinct, wiped out of human culture. By contrast, if a meme matches human instinct, it's easy for it to "reproduce" and increase it's population, because we humans are pre-programmed to believe the meme.

(You can Learn more about the fascinating concept of memes, if you're a newcomer to this idea.)

Religions are just a large set of intertwined memes – a memeplex – and thus it is no surprise that most of the morals claimed by religion are really nothing more than memes that survive because they mesh with our instincts. When religions claim to be the origin of morality, they simply have it backwards: Their morals are the ones best adapted to the "ecosystem" of our brains, nothing more.

To illustrate, let's look at sex, infidelity, and child abuse. Humans are sexually dimorphic – on average, men are considerably taller, stronger, and heavier than women. In almost all mammals, this is a hallmark of a harem species, where males mate with many females. And what do we see around the world? Almost all societies have a marriage institution, yet almost all societies "wink" at male infidelity – although it's frowned upon, and grounds for divorce, it's not a criminal activity unless you're the President and you lie about it to Congress. Most societies consider male infidelity to be a matter between husband and wife, not the state's business.

Now consider female infidelity. In most societies, it is not tolerated. Even in our "modern" society, female virginity is still somewhat valued, whereas male virginity is something of a stigma. Female infidelity in many societies is a very serious crime and can even result in death, whereas male infidelity is almost never a crime. These memes again reflect the underlying biological facts: If a male cheats on his mate, it doesn't really hurt the couple much, the male is still able to care for his family. By contrast, if a female cheats on her mate, she may become pregnant; her mate could end up raising another man's child instead of his own.

And finally, consider that child abusers, and especially child sexual predators, are reviled worldwide, and laws around the world reflect this. A man who has an affair suffers his wife's wrath; a man who abuses a child goes to prison.

These three examples illustrate a basic principle of meme theory: Ideas that mesh with our animal instincts find themselves in a "friendly ecosystem," and memes that clash with our instincts die out. A meme that says, "We should criminalize male infidelity" will find itself in a hostile ecosystem, because male infidelity is part of our genetic makeup, whereas a meme that advocates punishing and incarcerating child abusers matches our deepest instincts, and will become part of our culture.

Religion claims to be the origin of all morality, but it is not. Morality originates in our genetic makeup: Our instincts have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and are at the foundation of all human behavior.

To be continued in part 2 ...

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Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

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