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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.