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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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.