why we shouldn’t mix kurzweil with atheism

December 28, 2010 — 8 Comments

Personally, I’m not a fan of the whole religion as a virus argument set forth by Craig James for the very simple reason that he tries to boil down a rather complex psychological and societal phenomenon, and then turns it into a simple algorithm with a few fixed inputs and an output that’s almost always described as negative. Yes, there certainly are major, all too often violent downsides of religious fervor, but there’s more to religion than just a simple human impulse or an edict from an authority telling people what to believe and how. Of course, none of this means that there’s any validity in deities, but to simply call people’s beliefs a virus is reaching too far, even for an accommodationist-basher like myself. This is why when in the spirit of his approach to taking on religion James decides to go Singularitarian and argue that once we’re immortal, faith will be obsolete, I have to call for a time out for both oversimplifying why people join and stay in religious movements, and giving some of Ray Kurzweil’s overly bold and often inaccurate predictions a shout-out in the service of atheism.

old man

Let’s start from the beginning. James’ thesis is that religion is like an entity which fulfills certain human needs and survives by mutating to appeal to our urge to feel special and mitigate our fears of death. Sounds fine so far, but what is he forgetting? If you think back to every introductory psychology class you’ve ever had, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was always mentioned, and one important part of that hierarchy was belonging. People all too often join religious groups not even so much because they have an unshakable faith in a certain deity or a polytheistic tradition, but because everyone around them belongs to the same churches, mosques, temples, covens, and what have you. We’re social mammals and a sense of community is important to us, which could explain one of the reasons religion evolved as a codified form of natural behaviors and radiated into all of its different forms. Were you to look at a map of religious affiliations, you’d find regions of Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists based on geopolitics and cultural hubs rather than a mish-mash of random religions scattered all across the world. A lot of faithful go to church because it’s expected of them by members of their community, and in places where church attendance is considered less important, less people go.

Another important issue is that we’re biologically inclined towards a vague feeling of belief in something that is greater than ourselves, which I would suppose is one of the brain’s adaptations towards living as a social mammal. Having to work with others to achieve big goals requires to view oneself as part of something much bigger and more important than your immediate needs and wants. Now, we’re not predisposed towards any particular faith per se, that’s something that’s usually up to the community around us or a community that we’d like to join, but we can change the level of predisposition towards belief with brain surgery and aggressive, intensive, nonstop indoctrination, often conducted for very selfish reasons. Simply put, we’re wired for some kind of belief that there’s more to the world than just us and have a need to propagate our views and opinions because we often end up investing so much time and effort into them. Again, this doesn’t make any religious view more valid than another, and certainly doesn’t mean that the view in question is even correct since much of religion is built on strong personal opinions and conformation biases rather than reproducible evidence. If we want evidence we can test in a lab and answers to big questions about nature, we have science. But there is that nagging sense of wanting to be a part of something big, a sense that has to be satisfied.

For atheists, neither desire has gone away. We try to form communities and gather into groups that share the same ideas, and we see ourselves as part of a vast universe, privileged to be here by chance and evolution. I would argue that we have good reason for how we see ourselves in the grand scheme of things and we have plenty of evidence to back up our position. But the point is that we still need to satisfy our basic needs to join a community and play a part of something bigger than ourselves. Even if one day we manage to live as long as we want and never have to fear death, these urges won’t go away and we’ll find something to replace existing religions. We may turn the idea of ancient astronauts and alien gods into a new, mainstream faith, although I’m really hoping that we won’t adopt the Scientology variant of it. We would also have to deal with those who would refuse to do whatever it would take to become immortal, protesting the very idea an abomination since their religion tells them we have to die at some point. But no, religion won’t go away just because we may one day have the privilege of unlimited lifespans through cutting edge medicine and technology.

Also, unlike James says, the odds of the first immortal being alive today are infinitesimal to nil. Life extension will thrive eventually and declaring it dead on arrival is premature at best, but the only place where humanity is even close to unlimited life is in Kurzweil’s fantasies and numerological charts, so invoking his ideas for some sort of rhetorical blow to religion is simply not sound in any way, shape or form. Actually, it’s countering religious tenets with almost pseudo-religious techno-utopianism based on wishful thinking and a belief that technology will solve all of our problems according to a timeline we find convenient. Really, there’s a reason why a number of prominent transhumanists are pulling back from Ray and his prognostications and James’ education in computer science should’ve rang a few alarm bells when he read the books…

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  • Pierce R. Butler

    … we’re wired for some kind of belief that there’s more to the world than just us and have a need to propagate our views and opinions …

    Those needs are distinct: our primate cousins show strong tendencies to form groups, but no perceptible urges to disseminate world-views. In functional terms, our “higher” brain centers serve to create a working model of the world, which to a very large extent defines consciousness (with our own felt needs occupying a disproportionate share of the whole). Most of what we express is an output of this model, though usually compromised by the social need to claim status: asserting the validity of our views often outweighs seeking corrections to our conclusions.

    Even if one day we manage to live as long as we want and never have to fear death, these urges won’t go away…

    Ain’t it the truth! Still, Gregory Paul may be on to something in claiming that religion declines in proportion with physical and economic security. I find it very hard to believe a persistent utopia would retain anything like the Abrahamic sects, or any theism concerned with promises of protection and granting wishes. So long as the urges persist to form in-group and out-group divisions, and to compete for rank within our groups, some form of ideological rivalry and contending worldviews will play a part in same; should we develop beyond such drives, it will be time to retire labels like “transhuman” and “posthuman” and go to “ex-human” or just [fill-in-the-blank].

  • Mike Sarrett

    I read a novel by Neal Stephenson called Snowcrash that compared ideas to a virus in a virtual world. It is a work of fiction but very thought provoking. I really enjoy reading your blog and wonder if you know of this novel and what opinions you have about it if you do.

  • badbass9

    I find the notion of religion as a virus rather offensive. Religion has shaped our society worldwide. It is my observation that religion, any religion, sets society’s conventions, then enforces them. I am hard pressed to name a religion that is not based on the Tao. Adherence to religion is probably the first form of government. So, by saying religion is a virus (implying it must be gotten rid of), advocates an amoral, anarchist society. Only the truly basest of us would want that.

  • Greg Fish

    “Adherence to religion is probably the first form of government.”

    Actually that would be adherence to tribal elders. The elders and then kings would use shamans and priests as advisers and legal means of legitimizing their power, but did not obey them. So gerontocracy, not theocracy was really the first for of government.

    “… saying religion is a virus (implying it must be gotten rid of), advocates an amoral, anarchist society.”

    What is this, fundamentalist hour? Considering that most of the West is secular and is hardly even close to anything even remotely resembling anarchy and chaos, this claim is ridiculous. As for amorality, what’s more amoral than using one’s beliefs to dictate who lives and dies and how they’ll go about everything from sex to wearing clothes? If this is moral, from whom are you willing to take orders?

  • Brett

    Personally, I’m not a fan of the whole religion as a virus argument set forth by Craig James for the very simple reason that he tries to boil down a rather complex psychological and societal phenomenon, and then turns it into a simple algorithm with a few fixed inputs and an output that’s almost always described as negative.

    It’s simplistic, but I do think the “virus” analogy is apt. In a very real sense, religious ideology does hijack the thought processes of individuals, and in proselyting religions leads them to spread it to others.

    Another important issue is that we’re biologically inclined towards a vague feeling of belief in something that is greater than ourselves, which I would suppose is one of the brain’s adaptations towards living as a social mammal.

    That’s not what your link says. It says that what we’re wired for is to see supernatural agents in nature, which isn’t really a surprise. In more ways that religion, human beings are wired to see false positives.

  • Greg Fish

    “… religious ideology does hijack the thought processes of individuals.”

    It can, but it doesn’t have to and there are plenty of people who would call themselves religious but think that faith healing is just a crock, miracles never happen, and that creationists are fools. Like I said, for quite a few peolpe, the religious identification is a mark of the community, but they’re not very zealous about it.

    The problem with the virus analogy is that we can refer to anything that keeps going by spreading to more and more people as such. Viral videos and viral links are one of the hallmarks of Web 2.0 for instance. But in this case, James is trying to use is to sound as demeaning as possible and take the humans out of the equation past the role of carriers. He says he got the idea after learning about genetic algorithms, deciding to apply them to religion, and declaring that the shoe fits, hence religion is a virus. That’s not how those algorithms are supposed to be used and its actually quite a naive and simplistic approach.

    “That’s not what your link says. It says that what we’re wired for is to see supernatural agents in nature…”

    Yes, and that ultimately results in a belief that there’s something larger than us out there. I linked to a post in which I try to point out facts related to a particular instance of bad reporting about good research, and I leave the details of Dr. Hood’s analysis as a link for the readers to explore further.

  • badbass9

    No, I’m not being fundamentalist. I was pointing out religions place in society. Possibly, you’re confusing the fundamentalists, who have hijacked all religions (for their base of power) , with what religions were originally supposed to be. A means of keeping large groups of people at peace. To a lesser degree, all governments tell you what to do. Based on the Tao. Replace the concept of government where you see the word religion in each of the above comments. Even in the original post. There is little, if any, difference. I agree faith healing is a scam, there are no miracles, and creationists need to get a clue. And atheism would be considered a form of religion, based on your description in the post. It’s the zealots who are a virus. Not the concept of theology.

  • Brett

    Yes, and that ultimately results in a belief that there’s something larger than us out there.

    No, it doesn’t – at least not necessarily. It’s just a tendency to see motive and actors when there are none. It doesn’t lead to some sort of inborn tendency to “see something greater than ourselves”.