Daniel Dennett and the bacterium of faith

How guilt reinforces the link between religion and positive social action.

The death of Christopher Hitchens has naturally overshadowed this week's special edition of the New Statesman. Apart from anything else, it's extraordinarily appropriate that his last interview should appear in the magazine where he first exercised his talents, and have been conducted by Richard Dawkins, his comrade in arms in so many battles against religion.

But Professor Dawkins has served up many other Christmas treats, too, not least philosopher Daniel Dennett's remarkable essay on the self-sustaining nature of cultural phenomena -- among which many would include the organised religions.

Dennett makes a case for viewing phenomena as varied as Ponzi schemes and debutante balls as analagous to bacteria. They have, he argues, characteristics usually regarded as essential to living organisms: a "metabolism", a barrier or wall within which they are able to preserve a distinctive identity, and a means of reproducing themselves. The "environment" in which these symbolic life-forms must survive is the human world of "seven billion interacting people, with their traditions, languages, institutions, occupations, values and economies."

The Japanese tea ceremony is a good example of an, on the face of it, pointless ritual that survives because of repetition, because of its social status (it remains a valued accomplishment in middle-class circles in Japan) and because it has "evolved an elaborate developmental programme for enlisting and training new hosts who can eventually reproduce their own schools for training yet another generation of hosts". It has become a kind of parasite or benign tumour on the body of Japanese society.

As Dennett notes, the Japanese tea ceremony is not a religious ritual as such -- although it is imbued with the spirit of Zen Buddhism and might be regarded in some respects as a highly stylised form of meditation. Its meaning consists in its repetition: any deeper purpose it may have is secondary to the mere fact of its continuing existence, which itself is threatened by changes in the wider society rendering it irrelevant.

It's not hard to think of similar phenomena closer to home. Fox-hunting, for example, though justified by its supporters as an efficient form of pest-control, has been sustained largely by its social cachet, by its self-conscious embodying of English tradition, by the fellow-feeling of members of the hunting community, and by the organisational infrastructure of hunt-masters and dog-breeders. Much of this has survived not just huge social (and moral) changes in recent decades, but even the outlawing of hunting with hounds in 2004, proving a that a cultural bacterium with a sufficiently powerful immune system is capable of living in a hostile environment.

Dennett suggests that many cultural organisms rely for their vitality on a control of information. It's important, he suggests, that participants -- and outsiders, especially -- don't know too much about what is really going on:

The membrane that restricts information flow is just as important as the membrane that restricts entry of outsiders, precisely because inside the barrier there are participants who are capable of understanding that information, information that can quickly transform them into outsiders.

This is obvious enough in the case of a Ponzi scheme (another of Dennett's sociological bacteria), which relies on dupes continuing to pay into the system. For such a scam to work, "networks of trust" must be maintained and exploited. But what about religion? Dennett notes that not all professional clergy whole-heartedly believe the doctrines that they are supposed to promulgate. Some may have lost their faith entirely: he estimates, based on research he has conducted along with Linda LaScola, that about one in five priests or pastors fall into this category. Some lose their beliefs in theological college, when they are exposed for the first time to the work of Biblical scholars and sophisticated theologians. Yet they continue to preach and draw their stipends.

Such people have "made a substantial investment in social capital" by joining the church in a professional capacity; but it's not just the prospect of lost status or (usually little) money that keeps them preaching a message they no longer believe. As Dennett notes, one way of coping with the guilt they may feel is by throwing themselves into the "social-work" aspect of their ministry, turning them into "goodness slaves". A side-effect of this, it occurs to me, is to reinforce the strong association between religion and positive social action, which in turn leads politicians -- whether devout, agnostic or (like David Cameron) "committed but vaguely practising" -- to extol the virtues of faith in a modern society.

A more common response, it seems to me, is for clergy who are unable to believe the literal truth of their doctrines to re-interpret them as something vague and metaphorical that they can believe in. While some may regard their quasi-agnosticism as something to be kept largely to themselves (for fear of upsetting the "simple faith" of the folks in the pews), others manage to convince themselves that what they now believe represents the true nature of religion and that it's the literal-minded believers (and atheists) who have misunderstood. They may even claim that "belief" in the literal truth of religious doctrines is some form of recent aberration dating from, at most, the 16th century.

Such sophisticated apologists for religion play well in a liberal culture which has little sympathy with the certainties of both fundamentalists and of "strident" atheists. It may be, as Dennett suggests, that the "sudden increase in informational transparency" has caused religions to undergo profound change as they strive to survive in a rapidly changing environment. Indeed, he thinks, what looks like increasing interest in religion globally over the past decade or so is the effect, not of an increase in religiosity per se, but rather represents "the heightened expenditure of energy by all the threatened varieties in their desperate attempts to fend off extinction."

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here