Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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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."