Religion and Memes: A Hundred Students Walk Out of a Lecture

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 3 June 2016

Dustin Celestino, IHEYO Newsletter April/May, 2016

A few days ago I was doing a lecture on the difference between master morality and slave morality as explained by Friedrich Nietzsche. I told my students that Nietzsche believed that many of the personal qualities Christianity considers virtuous (humility, obedience, mercy, charity) benefit only the weak and powerless. I also mentioned how Nietzsche thought that the promotion of these Christian values is a defensive measure conducted by weaklings to discourage stronger individuals from totally dominating them. While I was talking about these ideas, I knew that many of my students were Christian. If any of them were offended by these ideas and had to excuse themselves, I would not have held this behavior against them.

People, in general, should not be offended by facts that contradict their beliefs. However, some people DO get offended when they encounter information that they feel trivialize, belittle, or criticize the things that they believe. When I present data that contradicts the beliefs of people, I accept the reality that some of them might resent me for saying such things, even if they were facts (I mean, Nietzsche DID SAY all those things).

The problem with discussions that cross religion is that religion is not a rational subject, it’s an emotional one. Even if the information presented was objective & scientific, people will inevitably respond with emotion. People believe in religion because of their emotions, NOT because of reason. Obviously, if I criticize a person’s religion, he’ll respond emotionally and not rationally.

I’m not sure if this sounds condescending, but I have begun to treat people with religion with the same empathy I extend to people with depression. I don’t tell religious people that their beliefs don’t make sense, because that would be very similar to telling depressed people that their sadness doesn’t make sense. Depressed people can’t help but be sad, whether or not there are legitimate reasons for their sadness. Religious people can’t help but believe, whether or not there are legitimate reasons for their beliefs.

I’m not implying that religious belief is a mental disorder. What I’m saying is that telling a person that Christianity does not make any scientific sense won’t suddenly convince him to change his mind about Christianity. He knows it doesn’t make scientific sense, and he chooses to believe it anyway.

One of the challenges I commonly encounter, being a science-oriented atheist, is trying to deliver factual information without trivializing religious sentiment. I want to teach my students basic scientific facts, like evolution, but the very idea of evolution contradicts notions of creationism; natural selection contradicts intelligent design.

I often ask myself, “Should teachers and scientists walk on eggshells around matters of religion?”

Just recently, Susan Blackmore, the author of the book “The Meme Machine,” held a lecture at the Oxford Royal Academy. Her lecture was about how memes spread.

A meme is defined as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.” An example of a meme is religion; it is system of behavior that is passed on from one individual to another (conversion, indoctrination, etc.).

Naturally, the lecture would have to tackle one of the most dominant examples of meme systems. However, when she discussed religion, people started to walk out.

In Sue Blackmore’s article, “A Hundred Walked Out of My Lecture,” she writes:

“Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.

I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out. By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.”

I wasn’t surprised that the audience walked out. In my youth, I’ve walked out of churches too when I was annoyed with the sermon. What actually surprised me was the fact that the lecturer was wondering why her audience walked out. She was disheartened by the audience’s dismissal of the facts she was presenting.

It was very obvious why they walked out, really. The audience dismissed her facts, because she dismissed their beliefs as ridiculous. She also intended to show them a slide about how their minds have a virus. In my humble opinion, she can’t trivialize someone’s views and expect them to listen to hers.

Yes, everything she said was true: these were facts – a religion IS an example of a memeplex.

However, I can’t help but wonder if there might have been a kinder way of delivering this information, especially to an audience with religion. At this point, most atheists would probably ask me, “What are you suggesting? Are you saying we should respect religious feelings?”

I’m saying that we should have realistic expectations. When we talk about facts that contradict religious teachings, we must accept that some feelings are going to be offended. When we openly criticize religion, we must accept that some of our religious friends would decide to stop being our friends. People’s feelings are more important to them than whatever it is we have to say. As soon as we offend feelings, we should accept the reality that people can stop listening to us, because we were never entitled to their attention to begin with.

I also believe that we should respect feelings, in general, whether these feelings belong to a religious person or an atheist. I believe that some religious beliefs and practices harm a lot of people. But I also have to recognize the fact that religion is important to some people.

I honestly don’t know how to navigate the issue of respecting feelings, being both an advocate of science and a critic of some religious beliefs and practices, but I’m working on it. I believe that there is a way to educate with empathy, all that is needed is a desire to empathize with our audience.

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