I vividly remember a scene once described by Richard Dawkins about a scientist listening to a talk, then pondering it and declaring on the spot to the lecturer: "I have been wrong these last years. Your arguments convinced me."
Frankly speaking, I held that one as a legend, as I was sceptical about our psychological abilities to manage such a feat. Most of us human beings tend to interweave their scientific and emotional worldviews as part of our self-concepts, clinging to them even against strong arguments. And this is especially true concerning the evolution of religiosity and religions, where a whole sub-culture of antitheism ignored Charles Darwin for the sake of popular metaphors as e.g. describing religions as "viruses of the mind".
But then, the fable came true, and it happened to me. As I finished my talk at the "Explaining Religion"-conference in Bristol, Susan Blackmore added some tough questions - and then admitted on the spot that the religion-virus-metaphor that she had advocated for years was wrong. And since then, she even wrote a post about the subject at Guardian CIF, see:
To speak frankly, I am still baffled and absolutely impressed by Sue's integrity and courage. I appreciate her work and included her "Macht der Meme" (the German translation of "The Meme Machine") in my doctorate thesis some years ago. I would never have dreamt that someone as prominent would be ready to accept core scientific arguments in so short a time, without trying to circumvent things or to switch sides in utter silence. And Sue certainly knew that she would be critized by fellow "rationalists" who had integrated the spicy virus-metaphors in their psychological and emotional narratives. You might want to take a look at some of the comments which are fired at her now from very different angles! True "believers" (here: in antitheist memetics) tend to abhor apostates from doctrine...
Nevertheless, I learnt from Susan Blackmore that scientific discourse can be even stronger than I had dared to hope. And therefore, I want to answer her courage with some conceding thoughts of my own.
Not a triumph, but an urge to dialogue!
Maybe some people would expect some triumphalism here. In fact, I don't feel this way. As a scholar of religion and a Protestant Christian married to a Muslim, I know of the riches of religious traditions - and of the dangers. In some corners of this world, our mere family live would be threatened by death penalty in the name of God just because of our different faiths. Actually, bridging the culture gaps means to experience the warmth and treasures as well as the ugly extremisms, prejudices and aggressions that in-groups manage to organize against each other.
Personally, I assumed - as did Charles Darwin - that evolutionary theory was perfectly able to explain religiosity and religions and that the trait would turn out to be somewhat adaptive. I would have been perfectly content with having found a slight reproductive advantage of religious people when compared to their secular neighbours.
But what I found (and keep finding) repeatedly during these last years was not only a strong and actually widening demographic gap - but the complete lack of a single case of a secular population, community or movement that would just manage to retain replacement level for a century. What I found (in some congruence to late thoughts of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) is that secularism is followed by (yet) inevitable, demographic decline. And while I laboured on the evolutionary consequences (has religion evolved into a neccessary part of human social live?), exchanges with political scientist Eric Kaufmann opened my eyes to some discomforting consequences:
- If seculars are having too few children to sustainably retain their numbers and traditions.
- And if religious moderates tend to have more children, but to lose many of them to secularism - not the least because they are ready to listen to rational and scientific arguments.
- Then the surviving and expanding populations will be those of religious fundamentalisms, having many children while blocking any serious discourse with non-theists or other believers concerning education, science, worldviews and, finally, human rights.
Actually, I don't think that this fate is inevitable - although I concede that we are seeing discomforting predecessors of this scenario e.g. in some parts of Israel and the USA. But I do think that all people interested in science and education would be well advised to stop throwing polemics at each other and to start serious, informed dialogue about the ongoing evolution of religiosity and its consequences. Religion will be a part of our future as a species - and we should start to take our respective responsibilities to ensure a framework of peace, human rights and liberties.
With her outstanding courage, Susan Blackmore convinced me that there "is" a chance for seculars and responsible believers to come out of the old trenches and to embark on the shared quest of shaping a scientifically informed, free and more peaceful future. Will we be able to muster the inner strength that Sue demonstrated?