How to Eradicate Militant Islam

It's said that nothing is harder to kill than an idea. Trying to stamp out a deeply felt belief by force, especially a religious belief, not only makes its followers cling to it more tenaciously, it gives them an aura of martyrdom that makes the belief look even more attractive to outsiders. And when the belief in question is a religious belief whose scriptures claim that persecution of the faithful is a sign of their righteousness, these tendencies become all the stronger.

This is more than just an academic debate, unfortunately, because we're currently seeing it play out in the spread of militant Islam. In some form or another, Islam is practiced by almost a third of the population of this planet, and this means there's a vast pool of people who are susceptible to the siren song of radical preachers calling for violent jihad. Fundamentalism is spreading among them like a weed, and the memes that give fundamentalist Islam its resilience and persistence are interwoven with memes that encourage acts of bloodshed and terrorism: suicide bombings, chopping off heads and hands, stoning and hanging as routine punishments, the execution of apostates, the brutal oppression of women and religious minorities.

Nor can it be said any longer that militant, fundamentalist Islam is just an insignificant minority within a peaceful faith community. Polls of Muslim countries routinely find that majorities or sizable pluralities approve of tactics like suicide bombing, even against civilians (see p.39). And diplomatic organizations representing dozens of Islamic governments are still pressing for legal restrictions on free speech around the world. In most Muslim-majority nations, the rights of women and minorities, both de facto and de jure, are practically nonexistent.

We badly need to provoke a new Enlightenment in the Islamic world, but how? As any atheist knows, religious memes are self-protecting; they come packaged with concepts such as faith, obedience to religious authorities, the command to trust only one book, and the promise of hellfire for those who disobey or doubt, all of which make it difficult for people inside the religion to take a critical look at their own beliefs. Once they've taken root, they're very difficult to eradicate.

To answer this question, I think it's worth asking another one. Why is it that violent Islam has had so much success at spreading itself? How has it made so many converts?

I don't believe that it's because militant Islam is intrinsically more appealing than moderate Islam, or because it offers a stronger sense of purpose or identity. Nor is it because, as racists sometimes claim, Muslim people are less intelligent or more prone to violence than Westerners. I think the real explanation is very different and, once you realize it, much more obvious. Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains it in her book Nomad, describing her experiences with rootless Somali youth in Nairobi:

"Some of these young men later repented and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. They would go to Saudi Arabia on Islamic scholarships and come back as preachers of what we would now call radical Islam. Their own story was compelling, for they had been saved from evil, Westernized behavior when Allah showed them the straight path." [p.57]

The spread of radical Islam can be traced directly to the disastrous coincidence that the more severe forms of Islam, like Wahhabism, were born in and came to dominate the same countries that have some of the world's richest oil reserves. The leaders of these countries, all of which are theocracies, treated this discovery as proof that God favors their beliefs. And they've used - they're still using - their vast oil wealth to fund an evangelistic movement spreading the poison of militant Islam throughout the world.

This makes the otherwise mysterious success of Islamism much more understandable. There's nothing inexplicable about it - it's entirely to be expected that the wealthiest faction will have the most ability to spread its message. And this is all the more true when they're preaching to people in poor and developing nations, who stand to gain the most from affiliating themselves with the Islamist movement and the financial power that supports it. Most of these countries have governments that are weak, corrupt or autocratic, making an attractive alternative of charismatic Islamist preachers who claim to represent virtue and societal order. And in many poverty-stricken regions, Saudi-funded madrassas are literally the only source of education, which means these preachers face little resistance or competition in the battle for young minds. (This sheds some light on why the Afghani Taliban are so bent on destroying Western-built schools, especially girls' schools. It's not just because they want to keep women ignorant; it's because they fear the competition.)

And this theory points the way to breaking the power of radical Islam: We badly need to free ourselves from our dependency on fossil fuel. The fact that it lubricates every part of our economy means that America and the West are, in effect, paying a tax to the religious fanatics who desire our destruction. This isn't a new observation, of course, but I think this analysis clarifies the direct connection between our addiction to oil and the spread of jihadist ideologies that cultivate theocracy and terrorism.

If we could develop an alternative-energy economy not based on importing fossil fuels from the Mideast, the Islamist regimes would shrivel up and die, and the source of funding for al-Qaeda and its affiliates would dry up virtually overnight. As it is, we're bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives in a futile quest to establish Western-friendly regimes, while at the same time spending rivers of cash that flows to the factions resisting us. We're fighting the enemy with one hand while aiding them with the other. It would be laughably absurd, if the consequences weren't so deadly serious.

August 4, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink40 comments

Jealous Gods

For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous god.

—Exodus 34:14

Many verses in the Bible, such as the one above, state unequivocally that Yahweh is a jealous and vengeful lawgiver. They warn of how he loathes idols, and graphically describe the dreadful punishments he will inflict on any of his chosen people who go astray and worship false gods. In fact, the prohibition on worshipping false gods is the very first of the Ten Commandments - more important than abstaining from theft or murder, more important than honoring your parents or being faithful to your spouse.

I've often wondered how Jews, Christians and Muslims justify the overriding, supreme importance placed on this rule in their respective religious traditions. Sure, if God existed, I could see him mentioning it here or there - but why stress it this much? Why exalt it above all other moral duties, including those about being kind and loving your fellow people? Are we to believe that the infinite, all-powerful ruler of all existence, the creator of an awe-inspiring universe of a hundred billion galaxies with a hundred billion stars each, feels slighted, or worse, threatened if the inhabitants of one insignificant planet don't give him what he views as his due praise? Such a depiction speaks to me not of omnipotence and infinite wisdom, but of puny ego and petty jealousy. These are the faults of a vain and insecure human, not the character traits of anything we might reasonably call a god.

No, I think there must be a better reason why the Bible depicts God as all-consumingly jealous. And I think I know what that reason is.

To know more about a god, look to its creators. Why are human beings jealous? The answer, as in many things, lies in evolution. If our male ancestors were unconcerned with their mate's fidelity, they might well end up using their time and energy to raise other men's children, rather than propagating their own genes. That variant would soon die out of the gene pool. By contrast, the ancestors who jealously guarded their paternity are the ones whose genes were passed on to us. A similar principle holds for our female ancestors: those who demanded that their mate spend his effort on caring and providing for their own children, rather than the children of another woman, would be far more likely to pass on their genes than those who were indifferent. In both cases, in the brute calculus of reproductive success, jealousy wins and free love loses out.

Richard Dawkins is famous for pointing out that memes, the units of cultural transmission, undergo selection and evolve very much like genes. And we can apply that lesson in this case to come to a surprisingly powerful conclusion: human beings and gods are jealous for the same evolutionary reasons.

After all, what would happen to a religion which taught that its followers could freely mix and mingle with the teachings of other faiths? Like the free-loving ancestor, its memes would soon be mutated and diluted into unrecognizable form. It might survive in some form, but nothing like a coherent set of beliefs or teachings could be passed down over time.

But a jealous god, like a jealous human being, has far better odds of perpetuating itself with fidelity. Stern warnings against worshipping other gods or following other teachings keep the line of transmission pure and ensure that the belief is replicated faithfully from one generation to the next. It may well be that inherently syncretistic belief systems, including modern-day religions like Wicca, simply can never gain much power because they are too diverse. The only kind of religion that can act with ideological unity are the religions of the vindictive and jealous gods - and it's ironic that those believers who fiercely police the purity of their doctrines, supposing themselves to be doing God's will, are really just victims of a trick of memetic evolution.

November 12, 2008, 8:41 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink27 comments

The Bubble

The Evangelical Outpost, a major Christian blog, last week published a positive review of Nancy Pearcey's book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity. In it, Pearcey argues that true Christians must purge their thinking of evolution and all other secular ideas and philosophies:

Most Christians are more secular then they realize, and this must change if the Church is to have any sort of significant cultural impact... Christians must counter the affects [sic] of secularism by developing a comprehensive biblical worldview.

It's no surprise that Pearcey, a young-earth creationist, believes it is vital for Christians to reject evolution. But her goals, and the goals of the movement to which she belongs, are broader than this. The modern religious right's plan is not to defend their various beliefs in piecemeal fashion. Instead, they seek to create a self-contained world within the real world, one where all the channels of information present only the views they approve, and believers are never exposed to dissenting opinions.

Slacktivist, a far better kind of Christian, has an insightful article on this phenomenon, discussing the many "Christian worldview" groups. This phrase, as he explains, is code for the fundamentalist enclaves like Bob Jones University that seek to instill a rigid and all-encompassing dogma into their followers' minds. The intent is to create believers who automatically distrust any information that does not come from "safe", approved sources of religious indoctrination, but who will unquestioningly obey the leaders of the fundamentalist movement.

If we freethinkers believe in the marketplace of ideas, a thriving realm of debate where different viewpoints can freely clash and mingle, the dominionist right has a different vision. They do not want to be just another participant in the marketplace; they want to withdraw from that broader sphere and create their own marketplace, one where only their voices are heard. Like a memetic analogue of "bubble boy" syndrome, they want to enclose their followers in a protective bubble of sterilized information, allowing nothing that might disturb their preconceptions to pass through. (A commenter on the Evangelical Outpost clearly conveys this when he expresses desire for "a return to filtering our thoughts and conclusions about reality through God's word").

When fundamentalists wave the banner of "liberating Christianity from its cultural captivity", what they really mean is that they want to "liberate" Christianity from the burdensome constraints of objective reality. They want to limit and restrict their followers' thoughts, to the point where they create a legion of faithful believers who are perfectly immune to contrary evidence and argument. And once that is achieved, then the final stage of their plan:

Evangelicals, explains Pearcey, have traditionally thought of salvation only in terms of individual souls. The idea that we are to have a redeeming influence in every area of culture is new to many... People need to learn how to move beyond a merely privatized faith and apply biblical principles to areas like work, business, and politics.

Like most of the religious right today, Pearcey and her ideological comrades are not satisfied to see Christians having the freedom to practice their own faith. They want to dominate society and impose that faith on others who do not share it. The wish for Christians to have "a redeeming influence on every area of culture" is just a thinly disguised wish to eliminate all ideas that do not conform to their narrow and dogma-blinded vision.

How, then, can freethinkers overcome this strategy? How can we pierce the bubble of dogma and persuade believers to give us a fair hearing? An upcoming post will address that question.

September 15, 2008, 8:28 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink26 comments

The Reason for the Season

As the solstice holiday draws near, the annual complaints by the religious right about the alleged "War on Christmas" are ramping up in volume, as usual. Every store greeter who says "Season's Greetings" is bitterly denounced; every municipality that erects a "holiday tree" is reviled with a level of shrillness that used to be reserved for schismatics and heretics. Some religious right figures such as Jerry Falwell are actually encouraging their followers to boycott stores that do not commercialize Christmas enough.

These over-the-top attacks constitute nothing short of a war on religious tolerance. In these people's eyes, no inclusiveness, no acknowledgment of the existence of belief systems other than their own, is permitted. These Christian bigots would like us to believe that this is "their" day, "their" time of year, reserved to them and no one else to promote their message as they see fit. But the evidence shows that something very different is the case. Not only do they not have sole possession of the holiday season, they did not even invent it. Decorating Christmas trees, burning the Yule log, kissing under the mistletoe, exchanging gifts - all these holiday traditions are not inventions of Christianity, but relics of older, pagan celebrations that the Christian church coopted by deliberately scheduling its most sacred days to coincide with theirs.

For example, the Germanic pagans' celebration of Yule is the origin of our modern holiday traditions of decorating conifer trees, hanging holly, and kissing under the mistletoe. (These plants, after all, are hardly common in the Middle Eastern culture where Christianity originated, though they are abundant in the northern European cultures where Yule was observed.) The traditional Christmas ham also comes from Yule celebrations, as does the Yule log, still remembered by the name of its true holiday of origin.

Or take the festival of Saturnalia, a major and very popular Roman holiday in honor of the god Saturn that took up several days of December, which were largely given over to public feasting, dancing, and general merry-making, as well as the deliberate subversion of social customs such as the roles of slaves and slave owners. The exchange of gifts was a Saturnalia tradition, and some have suggested that the pilleus, a red felt cap traditionally worn during this holiday, is echoed by today's association of the red peaked cap with Santa Claus.

Also, shortly after Saturnalia was another Roman holiday, Sol Invictus - the "Feast of the Unconquered Sun", a winter solstice celebration created to honor any of Rome's several sun gods. Sol Invictus was set on the date of December 25, after which the days once again begin to grow longer, and even the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia says that this holiday "has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date". Early Christians praised God's wisdom in deliberately timing Jesus' birth to symbolically coincide with the Sun's annual rebirth, apparently not realizing that the coincidence originated in political maneuvering by human beings rather than any supernatural event.

Though we have come far from our agrarian past, human society still resonates to the ancient agricultural rhythms that once determined the ebb and flow of our lives. Even today, our year is organized around two major poles: one near the winter solstice, shortest day of the year, when the harvest has finally been laid in and there is nothing else to do but feast, make merry and hunker down to await the snows of the new year; the other near the spring equinox, when winter's perilous grasp finally begins to thaw and there is a rebirth of the land and a new season of planting to look forward to. Modern Christian society designates these days as Christmas and Easter and supposes them to commemorate one-time miraculous events of the more recent past, rather than the timeless and endlessly repeated cycle of nature, but despite the thin veneer of Christianity that has been layered on top of them, the true roots of these days still clearly show through.

Through history, the church has attempted to Christianize not just the solstice season, but other major pagan holidays such as Easter and Halloween, with varying degrees of success. Christians have a long history of taking over pagan holidays and making them their own, interpreting the old symbols in a new context. We can do the same. We can retain the traditions and symbols of Christmas - many of which are indeed beautiful, and have endured for precisely that reason - without retaining the religious window dressing that has become attached to them. Instead, we can reinvent the holiday season as a more explicit celebration of what it has always fundamentally been about: a time to come together in celebration of love and friendship, and to extend a hand of compassion to the less fortunate. The difference is that rather than an unconscious battle of natural selection between memes played out in the medium of human minds, this time we can enter upon the endeavor as a conscious act of memetic engineering, in full awareness of what we are doing and why.

December 20, 2006, 8:02 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink30 comments

Infectious Memes

Hi! I am a .signature virus. Copy me into your .signature to join in!

—seen on Usenet

And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

—excerpt from the Shema, a prayer that all observant Jews are required to recite twice daily

It is with some justice that philosophers such as Daniel Dennett have labeled Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection the best idea a human being has ever had. In a single brilliant stroke, Darwin explained all of life's vast diversity and subtle adaptation in a set of orderly, simple principles that define the means by which living things evolve to suit their environments. Few other ideas have so effectively shown the power of science's reductionist viewpoint toward studying the world.

However, as with most important scientific ideas, evolution has undergone many modifications and extensions since it was first proposed. One implication of Darwin's ideas which did not occur to him is that evolution is not limited to acting solely on living things and their genes. Any unit of information that is reproduced imperfectly and faces competition to survive and spread can undergo, and will undergo, an analogous process of evolution. And though it may be hard to see initially what other informational unit could participate in such a process, there are indeed other replicators out there, whizzing around us by the hundreds every day, multiplying invisibly in great swarms, and struggling against each other, often violently, for dominance. They are known as memes.

Just as the gene is the fundamental unit of biology, the meme is the fundamental unit of culture. A meme can be a word, a song, a phrase, a parable, an invention, an idea, a technique - anything that tends to be passed on as a single, cohesive unit. A single musical note is probably not a meme, but the sequence of four famous notes that make up the opening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony undoubtedly is. But while genes assume a relatively limited repertoire of forms - DNA, RNA, protein - memes by comparison are promiscuous in the diversity of encodings they take on. A meme can be expressed as a set of marks on paper, a set of speech patterns in the air, a set of neural firings in a brain, a set of bits in the memory of a computer, or any of the vast number of ways in which human beings communicate and express ideas.

And just as living things are ultimately made of genes, our society is largely made of memes. A human being with no memes whatsoever would be little different, intellectually, from other animals; such a person would have no language, no skills, no knowledge about the world. It is the vast pool of memes circulating in human society, independent of any single mind - what some authors refer to as "extelligence" - that has boosted humanity's collective intellectual capacity beyond the outputs of isolated geniuses and that has made it possible for us to exert the degree of control and understanding we do over the external world. Our society is like a boiling, turbulent cauldron of memes, with some rising and some falling, some spreading as rapidly as wildfire and others fading away, as different ideas vie for available mind space.

I wrote in my essay "Thoughts in Captivity" that memes also differ from genes in that a single meme can reproduce and spread through human minds all by itself, whereas a gene must usually cooperate with other genes to build functioning organisms in order to be passed on. This is true as far as it goes, but an important point is that memes often do not travel in isolation either. Just as the selective environment that determines a gene's success or failure is composed principally of the other genes that interact with it, so too do memes expressing similar or related concepts, memes that reinforce each other, often band together into memeplexes that reproduce more successfully than any of those memes could do on their own.

There is another subtle point that is well worth grasping. It is true that many memes have spread because they are beneficial for us, because they provide the person that possesses them with an advantage over a person who does not. Memes such as the wheel, the scientific method, or E = mc2 have thrived because they increase our knowledge of the environment and our ability to alter it to our benefit. But it does not follow that every meme behaves in this way. As per the principles of evolution, a meme cannot spread unless it confers some replicative advantage, but that advantage need not be to the meme's carriers. On the contrary, a meme can flourish because the instructions it carries are good for the meme itself, not for the human being whose mind contains it.

For example, consider the meme of killing oneself and others in an explosive orgy of violence - a meme put into effect by school shooters and suicide terrorists alike. This meme is, sadly, replicating quite well (as recent news headlines show), despite its lethal effect on its carriers. It succeeds because the vivid media attention given to these shocking events helps it reach other troubled minds in which to take root, just as a virulent plague can afford to kill its hosts rapidly as long as it is contagious enough to jump to new ones in time.

Another example, indeed the paramount example, of memeplexes that replicate because it is advantageous to themselves to do so is, of course, religion. Religious memes have been fantastically successful at spreading through human minds, but it is not necessarily because they confer any advantage on their hosts. If anything, the vast amount of elaborate, repetitive behavior and ritual demanded by many religions, not to mention the huge investments of time and financial resources, often make religion a net drain on the people who practice it. Although religions do provide some social services to their members, that is not the only or the most important reason why they persist. Rather, religious memes persist because they contain a variety of ways to ensure their own propagation.

One of the most common is the instructions contained in religious memeplexes that say, "Teach me to your children while they are very young." In a species that needs as much post-natal mental development as humans, there are sound evolutionary reasons why children must be willing to believe anything their parents tell them: this is how we absorb the vast quantities of information needed to survive. But religious memes, like parasites free-loading on the efforts of others, have hijacked this and turned it to their advantage. A child's entire worldview, their most basic beliefs about what is plausible and what is not, is usually learned from their parents. Furthermore, relatively few people ever throw off the beliefs taught to them in their childhood, making the indoctrination of children a particularly effective and insidious way for religions to make converts. It is not that any individual planned this deliberately, but rather that religions which only targeted adults would probably be crowded out by religions which encourage the indoctrination of children. By the time someone becomes a potential convert to the "adult" religion, they will probably already have a religion of their own and will be much less likely to convert.

Similarly, it is no coincidence that religious memes discourage doubt and teach their followers to shun sources of information which conflict with their beliefs. Once they have gained a lock on a person's mind, religious memes naturally will thrive by suppressing all competition. Their "aim", in the non-anthropomorphic sense, is to convince a person who is in their power to believe in them alone and to fiercely reject all other sources of information and ways of knowing. This excerpt from an e-mail sent to me by a Christian correspondent makes this explicit:

Prior to finding the truth, which is Christ, I was open to hearing opposing views, but now having found the truth it would be pointless to waste my time. ...I am absolutely 100% convinced that I have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth... I heartily echo what the Apostle Paul said in I Corinthians 2:2: For I [am] determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

In this respect, religious memes show striking similarities to the way parasites in nature subvert and control their host's behavior. In his book Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer writes about an especially bizarre species of parasitic barnacle, Sacculina carcini, which infects crabs. Once it has penetrated a crab's exoskeleton, Sacculina begins a new life inside the crab's body, sprouting a web of fleshy tendrils which infiltrate its host's viscera and draw nutrients from its blood. An infected crab ceases growing, ceases molting, and ceases mating, as the parasite redirects all the crab's energy towards nutrition for itself. In effect, infected crabs become zombified eating machines, consuming food only to nourish the parasite inside them.

The Christian quoted above is very much the memetic analogue of this. This person originally e-mailed me to respond to my article "Foundation of Sand", writing that she had something she wanted me to consider. The rest of her e-mail consisted of a long list of verses cut and pasted from the Bible. When I wrote back to ask this person if she had a response to any of my actual reasons for being an atheist, she responded that she had no intention of disputing my arguments, but only felt compelled to "proclaim the gospel" to me. Following this was another list of cut-and-pasted biblical quotes, interspersed with arrogant declarations of total certainty like the above. She also declared that Jesus Christ, by which she really meant the Christian memes controlling her, was "my life, my all in all". Like a crab controlled by Sacculina, this individual has lost all capacity for independent thought, becoming nothing more than a mindless vehicle of repetition for the memes dwelling in her head. Admittedly, this is an extreme case, but by no means a rare one.

When we see Christians mindlessly reciting Bible verses, or Jews teaching the Shema to their children on the Shema's instructions, or Muslims blowing themselves up in suicide terrorism, we are witnessing infectious memes at work. Some of these memes are relatively slow-spreading and benign, while others have all the urgency and rapid spread of an epidemic. All of these ideas, however, are vying for space in human minds, using whatever tricks they can to shoulder aside the many others that are doing the same thing. But in this war of the memes, the one thing that every one of them is lacking is any evidence at all that they originally came from, or are sustained by, anything outside the efforts of human minds.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to all these infectious religious memes. We atheists have the antidote - in fact, we are the antidote. And we have made great strides in spreading our own message and setting many people free from the tyranny of warring memes, but not nearly enough. The only question is whether we can organize and focus our efforts effectively enough to truly bring enlightenment to humanity and sweep away the otherwise endless battles of faith and superstition.

October 9, 2006, 8:02 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink28 comments

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