I've noticed, both here on A|N and elsewhere, what I consider to be an error of thinking. It happens often enough that I feel it important to not only point out but correct. This error of thinking is confusing religion for religious persons.

This error is asserting that religion is violent or (not) peaceful. It is a rather odd claim, since religion is an idea, and violence is an action. Ideas can not act; ideas merely exist. It is true that ideas can lead an individual to certain action, including violence, but this is a quite different thing. One may even have violent thought that derives from the idea, but the idea itself can not be violent.

Language includes many short-cuts that enable people to express an idea in fewer words but still get the essential meaning across. It may be that in many such instances the claim that "Religion is violent" or "Religion is peaceful"  is such a short-cut (to wit: "Religious thought and practice encourages violence" and "Religious thought and practice encourages peacefulness"), but I think it more so a case of lazy thinking: the claim is what it is, means exactly what it states, and is not a short-cut.

My objection relates to agency and accountability. Religion, as an idea, can have no agency — can not act — and can not be held accountable. It is people who have agency and can be held accountable for the expression of that agency. By asserting that religion itself is violent or peaceful or whatever other quality one may assign one is not making a proper attribution. In a sense, it forgives religious people behaving badly because it is the religion itself that is the agent. But it is not. Religious people may well behave badly (or goodly) because of the ideas they have that inform their behaviour, but it is their behaviour nonetheless, and it is they who must be held to account.

By ascribing the agency to the idea, one is engaging in what is essentially superstitious thinking, as superstitious thinking ascribes agency to things that can have no agency.

Tags: agency, error, peace, religion, religious, religious people, superstition, thinking, thought, violence

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'Is this research memetics or does it consider memetics?

If we assume that ideas spread as memes and that ideas have positive or negative value when acted upon it seems like it should be possible to show that memes like religion (as the idea and not as the body of organisms that promote it) are in fact harmful.'


These are some sources I've found useful, Tom. I agree with Fred that memetic theories are fairly controversial in terms of explaining cultural transmission and its effects. Richerson and Boyd analyse a range of possibilities in terms of cultural evolutionary forces (2005: 69), and Dan Sperber's research is well known.

Several of these refs. have more to do with neuroscience and related research fields, which are telling us a great deal about individual and social effects of 'ideas', or whatever else we might think of as 'transmissible units of culture'. It's perhaps not too crucial whether or not we think of these as 'memes', as long as we take the limitations of the theories into account. Epiphenom and the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network are general resources I find useful. I'm afraid I don't have hyperlinks for all of them.

Bering, Jesse (2009). Religious Ideas Burrow Into Brains. Scientific American, March 26 2009.

Blackmore, Susan (1999). The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press. (Particularly 116-120)

Boyer, Pascal and Brian Bergstrom (208). Evolutionary Perspectives
on Religion. Annual Review of Anthropology, 2008, 37:111–130
(anthro.annualreviews.org)

Epiphenom (epiphenom.fieldofscience.com)

Harris, Sam, Jonas T. Kaplan, Ashley Curiel, Susan Y. Bookheimer4, Marco Iacoboni and Mark S. Cohen (2009). The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief. PLoS ONE, October 2009, Volume 4, Issue 10 (www.plosone.org).

McKay, Ryan T. and Daniel C. Dennett (2009). The Evolution of Misbelief. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2009, 32, 493–561 (homepage.mac.com/ryantmckay; ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/incbios/dennettd/dennettd.htm)

Non-religion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN-discuss@jiscmail.ac.uk)

Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd (2005). Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Sacks, Oliver and Joy Hirsch (2008). A Neurology of Belief.
Annals of Neurology, Vol 63, No 2, February 2008.
I define an ideology as "violent" whenever it happens to spawn violence as a logical consequence at statistically relevant rates. Most religious ideologies historically fit that definition perfectly well. I don't think that placing part of the blame on the underlying ideology in any way exonerates violent individuals. It just serves to identify a big part of the problem, because that's what religion itself is.

"With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion." - Steven Weinberg
Well, I'm not a strict proponent of memetics nor was I trying to be.
My post was just a response to the opening one, actually :P

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