Monday, March 2, 2009

Dawkins, Memes, and Bus-Ads

Here at St. Cynic, I have posted several articles relating to the on-going atheist bus-ad campaign happening in the Atlantic Isles, and America.

I find the whole enterprise entertaining -- which is, admittedly, an evolution in my viewpoint, since I was, at first, a little irritated about the whole affair. Nevertheless, continued articles about the subject has brought about some decent conversation, and I have softened. Since the campaign appears to be more of an exercise in political rights, rather than serious philosophical engagements, I support atheist groups in utilizing their civilian rights. And even if atheist groups were attempting this bus-ad campaign purely for philosophical reasons, there are no reasons I can think of that should trump their democratic rights to engage their surrounding culture in on-going dialogue.

Nevertheless, I do have to wonder what a series of well-written assertions will do to mark serious reflections in people's minds. Take for example, Richard Dawkins notion that the old testament God is "arguably one of the most unpleasant characters in all fiction." What can this statement do to generate any serious conversation? From the years of experience I've had dealing with people in many demographies, I'm willing to bet that a conversation brought on by the Dawkins's quote would devolve very quickly into rapid-fire assertions about God being real, and God not-existing; followed by headstrong assertions that the old testament isn't a fiction, that the old testament is just a fiction, etc.

That kind of dialogue doesn't get anyone anywhere -- except inflamed, of course. That is not to say that there is no possible chance that open-minded conversation will happen. However, how likely is it that an open-minded conversation can come of a close-minded assertion to begin with? And isn't that one of the largest complaints of the non-religious: that the religious are not open-minded and just say things with haughty finality? That's been my experience. And that makes me wonder about advertizing Dawkins's statement as an attempt at a brute-given: why shut-off dialogue with such a close-minded statement? Given that Dawkins is an atheist, and that he, like many of the nouveau atheists, prize reason above all things, wouldn't it be more reasonable to represent him with a more flexible, open-minded comment?

Still, I think I can understand why the people funding these kinds of advertisements (Freedom From Religion Foundation) would want to cut-off conversation: it isn't politically expedient. That is, if you want to free people from the misguided concepts of religion, then you want to cut the chains that bind them, as it were, and flee to the safety of rationality. Opening the grounds to talking about the validity of assertions such as Dawkins and McQueen have made might run the risk of people disagreeing. And when you're a fundamentalist batch of atheists, any possibility that you may be wrong is just as upsetting to them as it is to fundamentalist Christians being told they're wrong. It's just not possible!

So this begs the question: is the 'Freedom From Religion Foundation' fundamentalist? Do they preach a dogmatic version of atheism? It would seem from their inelegant bus signs that they consider themselves fully in command of what is right, of what is true. Namely, that faith is beneath human dignity, that we should evolve beyond belief, and that God is simply a fiction. Questioning the possibility that they may be wrong could lead to heady conversation, even mutually beneficial conversation. But from the calibre of the bus signs on their site (and advertised in this article), conversation is not the order for the day; accepting their point of view is.

And this leads me to another thought on the bus-ad campaign. Citing catchy quips, such as Mark Twain's quote above, is an effective marketing strategy. Being able to plant a thought in someone's mind such that it poses an on-going inner-dialogue, or possibly an emotional tension is a very popular way of selling a product. In this case, the product is doubt. There is nothing wrong with a healthy sense of doubt, but attempting to market doubt via memetic phrases poses an interesting connection in this bus-ad campaign.

The connection, in short, is this: Richard Dawkins is credited as introducing the term "meme" in his landmark book The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes, essentially, are bits of information, and ideas that self-replicate, and evolve via selective cultural pressures. The atheist bus-ad campaign is the brainchild of the British Humanist Association, and backed by -- who else? -- Richard Dawkins.

So, given that Dawkins introduced the notion of memes, and is the backer of the bus-ad campaigns, I have to wonder if professor Dawkins hasn't utilized his theory of memes in a brilliant attempt to invigorate a crafty bit of social engineering. If by having compact, memorable phrases puckered up in our brains, phrases that question, even outright deny the existence of God, and the validity of faith, enough people come to reject any form of religion, then the atheist bus-ad campaign would prove to be an insanely intelligent undermining of the hopes of millions.

I cannot be certain of the connection I think I see, but I do find it very interesting, to say the least, and will continue to look on as the ad campaign grows more popular. As for now, even though I find the campaign somewhat entertaining, and support atheists in their use of civil liberties, I will also feel free to doubt the benign intentions of their crusade. This is not an unreasonable position, I think, since I would be suspicious of anyone attempting to convince me to buy into something I don't actually want.

And to echo a phrase that pressured itself into my mind, I respond to atheists and free-thinkers in the words of G.K. Chesterton, "With all due respect to free-thinkers, I am still free to think." The close-minded atheist crusade, dolled-up as a campaign, may pose some reasonable doubts, but I seriously doubt it is a reasonable crusade.


Anonymous said...

On Dawkins: First off, Dawkins sees the Bible as fiction, which means he has no relationship with God. It is nigh impossible, I think, to understand someone devoid of relationship.
Free will means the freedom to believe or not to believe, so the ads don't bother me in that way. What I do wonder is how many people are influenced negatively or if people just read them and shrug their shoulders ...
Sad to pass judgement on someone you don't know, though, and that is what Dawkins is doing.
I can understand how someone looking on would think that the God of the Old Testament is unpleasant at times.
The people in the Old Testament defintitely were unpleasant, even those who were considered to be the great leaders (which really encourages me).
Then there is always the possibility that these will do just the opposite -- that they will spark people up to think of God and who He is ...
God can use anything He chooses to speak to people.
McQueen: Doesn't sound like a bad thing to me. Jesus came to turn religious thought upside down. Now, if she substitued "relationship" for "religion", which is what really belongs there, her statement would sound foolish.
Again, another misunderstanding of relationship with God and viewing it as "religion".
These things don't make me angry or even that sad; they do make me wonder what happened in that person's life or history to bring them to their conclusions.
Still, I believe in freedom to believe -- in free will.
So I don't (I can't) have a problem with this.
Twain: This statement doesn't make sense to me, so I do not see it as a slam against faith. Faith is believing in what you cannot see, but what you know is true -- much different than what Twain is asserting.
Darrow: That statement is the hardest for me because what he is doing is really calling other people stupid for believing in God ... much less gracious than believers who agree that people have a right to believe or not to believe and to live with the consequences that either brings.
Darrow's statement is one that I believe would offend many.
Sometimes it's easier to put people down than to respectfully talk things through or to accept that you perhaps don't know everything there is to know in the universive.
What this last statement asserts is that the existence of God is not a possibility in this universe ...

Christopher said...


Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that it's egregious to pass judgment on people you don't know. In Dawkins's case, if he starts from the premise that god doesn't exist, then the person he is judging (God) really shouldn't cause offense, or suspicion of malice with anyone else -- because, according to Dawkins, God doesn't exist.

Nevertheless, Dawkins's statements are simply in bad taste. Despite the fact that people graduate from childhood tales of Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, chalking God up to a mere fiction dismisses, quite ingloriously, the singlemost driving force for human progress in all of history: belief in God. in a debate this would beg the question, "what is belief?" But in the workaday reality of life, billions of people place quite a stake in the probable existence of God such that bandying the notion about of God-as-a-fiction is poor form; it's on level with the kind of playground bullying that vehemently denies anything you or I may say. It's not very clever, and it just comes across as immature.

I agree with you that Darrow is spouting snobbery a little more explicitly than Dawkins.

McQueen's notion, from my perspective, is a false distinction. I know she's attempting to parallel slavery with religion, but the two are wildly unparallel, to say the least.

Twain's comment just seems like so many of his comments: and attempt at being clever. And, by and large, he succeeds at being clever. But so what? Clever is not therefore correct.

Pvblivs said...

     I tend to agree that the description of the god found in the bible is wicked. The holocaust could be taken straight out of Deuteronomy and the god's command of how to treat the people already in the land he was "giving" them. "You shall doom them. Make no covenent with them and show them no mercy." The nicest thing one could say about the account is that it is fictional. If the account represents a reality, the being described is a monster.

Anonymous said...

I did say that I could understand how the God of the Old Testament, who is the God of the New Testament, could be seen as unpleasant at times.
It is a misunderstanding by those who do not see mercy in His actions. I admit, it's hard to see at times.
He is a relational God who is deeply grieved in the Old Testament when He takes action.
His character does not change.
The best picture of Him that you can find is in Jesus who says, "I and the Father are one" and "He who has seen me has seen the Father."
I would encourage anyone who wants to see what God looks like, who wants to know what God is like, to look at Jesus.
Look at the way Jesus related to people and how he turned the religous thinkers on their ear.
Look at how he uplifted women.
Look at how he ministered to those others would have nothing to do with.
And look at the supreme price he paid, asking at the same time for the Father to "Forgive them for they know not what they do."
He is God incarnate, the Word become flesh so we can see who God is and know the ultimate sacrifice He made for us -- and experience the grace and mercy of a loving God.
That is available for all.
There is a lot that happened in the Old Testament that I do not understand. I look to Jesus to see, in the flesh, what I do not understand.

Pvblivs said...

     Look at the way he compared outsiders to dogs. Look at the way he denied his own mother when she wished to speak to him. The "forgive them; they do not know what they do" line is so out of character that I think it was added later.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your honesty.
Here is my last comment on this:
I had dozens of examples running through my head, but then realized that I know these things out of a relationship.
The only thing I can suggest is that you might want to read the gospel accounts to see for yourself what the character of Jesus was/is.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give four separate accounts. You can follow Him from his first miracle all the way to the cross and look at him there.
Decide for yourself if he lived what he taught.
Ultimately, that is what it comes down to -- a personal decision and relationship -- if that is what you choose.
Thankfully, he created us with free will and the choice to relate to him or not.