Another bunch left, then another

Sue Blackmore gave a lecture at a summer school yesterday and was left shaken and depressed by how it went.

I was told they were of 45 nationalities and I assumed many different religions. So I prepared my lecture carefully. I tried it out the day before on my husband’s grandson, a bright mixed-race 16 year-old from Paris, and added pictures of the latest craze for ‘Fatkiniposts’ and more videos, including my favourite Gangnam Style parody (Python style), but I wasn’t going to avoid the topic of religious memes – religions are an example, par excellence, of memeplexes that use wicked tricks to ensure their own survival. I simply made sure that my slides included many religions and didn’t single one out.

We can see the clouds gathering already.

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.

Thus illustrating how memes work, and/or how groupthink works, how conformity and solidarity work, how safety in numbers works. Once one batch left, all the others felt 1. empowered and entitled to leave and 2. righteous about leaving.

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.

The cartoon was worse. As I have often done before, I suggested that one final trick of a desperate religion (I didn’t say quite that this time) is to forbid laughter. I warned any devout Muslims in the audience to look away as I showed one of the Danish cartoons. It’s so simple – just a bunch of terrorists arriving in heaven to be told, “Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins’. That normally gets a good laugh – along with sympathy for the cartoonists threatened with death for something so innocuous. Not this time. More walked out.

She encountered some of the leavers outside, and had an unproductive conversation with them.

Walking miserably up the High Street I felt profoundly depressed at the state of the world. I could cheer myself with the thought that I’d learned something. I learned that Islam has yet another nasty meme-trick to offer – when you are offended put your hands over your ears and run away. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These bright, but ignorant, young people must be among the more enlightened of their contemporaries since their parents have been able and willing to send them on this course to learn something new. If even they cannot face dissent, or think for themselves, what hope is there for the rest? And what can I do?

Maybe remember that climate change will make it all tragically irrelevant much sooner than anyone would like?



  1. mistertwo says

    Oh, my, I’m afraid when the methane escapes the permafrost and the climate gets really nasty, the humans who remain alive will cling to their gods and guns even more than they do now.

    It’s like the news today about the mobs breaking in and taking Ebola contaminated garments, etc, who firmly believe that there’s no such disease, but that the government is simply trying to control them. The beliefs that cause the problem don’t change when the problem occurs. Instead, the believers dig in and increase their faith.

    Those who enable to fighting in Gaza firmly believe that it’s a sign that their religion is right, not realizing that they’ve created their own “sign”.

    Seems like a month ago I was optimistic that religion only had 100 years left. I mean, Cosmos! And I’m reading posts by like-minded people and feeling like I’m not in so much of a minority after all. And I was thinking that the reason the fundamentalist volume had turned up so much was that it was dying.

    But in the last two weeks that optimism has completely disappeared. All sorts of bad things happening the last couple of weeks, and all of those things the result of ignorance.

  2. johnthedrunkard says

    Wait a minute. Were ALL the departures ‘offended’ Muslims? Or did the audience dwindle meme by meme.

    In either case, the setting of an example of pre-emptive ‘offence’ is very significant. It does seem that since 9/11 every religious group has gained an extra edge of hostility to criticism and willingness to employ coercion and threats.

  3. John Horstman says

    @Leum #2: Seriously? That comment is more of the same tired “any criticism is bigotry” bullshit we hear any time we criticize religion in general or a particular religion. For example:

    It must have come as quite a shock to many of these children, who have presumably done exceptionally well in their A Levels, enough to have earned perhaps a place at one of the greatest Universities in the world, to learn that even in the hallowed halls and rarefied air of Oxford academia there will always be those looking to attack or just mock them because of their background.

    Is Cordeth commenting without reading the article, or is she accusing Blackmore of lying, or is she privileging the subjective experience of offended Muslims above all others as essentialized objective reality (even contrary to verifiable facts)? Since Blackmore very clearly explains how she *wasn’t* looking to mock or attack anyone because of their backgrounds, I see no other way to reconcile the comment with the original article. Also, the patronizing use of “children” – these are late adolescents to adults, not juveniles, and are thus only childen in the sense that we’re all someone’s children – is an irritating bit of rhetoric. The problem isn’t even a function of their youth, as plenty of grown adults behave the same way.

  4. says

    Also – as Blackmore clearly says, this place is NOT part of Oxford University, and these are not university students. It refers to itself as both a summer school and a summer camp. A SUMMER CAMP. This isn’t a university. Cordeth must have read very carelessly.

  5. dshetty says

    @John Horstman
    Since Blackmore very clearly explains how she *wasn’t* looking to mock or attack anyone because of their backgrounds,
    I find some of her examples designed to provoke (e.g. the Danish cartoon) – if the aim was to have two way discussion then probably that wasn’t a good choice (though it looks like some people left way before that)

  6. moarscienceplz says

    It does seem that since 9/11 every religious group has gained an extra edge of hostility to criticism and willingness to employ coercion and threats.

    Oh, some of ’em had it long before 9/11.
    In 1974, I worked the summer as a corpsboy at a church summer camp. Every week a new Protestant denomination had the camp for “their” kids. Most of the churches were pretty mellow – saying Grace over the meals and a little hymn singing and a light sermon at the fire ring before lights out was about the limit of the god-bothering they did. But, the Baptists! Sermons three times a day, and so much Fire and Brimstone! I thought it was funny, and repeated to the other corps workers and the camp manager some of the choice bits I had heard. Well, one of the Baptist counselors overheard me and ratted me out to the Baptist preacher, who issued a formal complaint about me to the manager. He thought it was as silly as I did, but he had no choice but to ask me to zip it till they left the camp. All I can say is I am sure glad I’m not going to share Heaven with the likes of them.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    It isn’t just the religious one has to watch out for. I made a post at Pharyngula listing many religious acts that I think are silly, including sticking one’s bum into the air to pray to your sky daddy, and I got a fair amount of pushback for that. Some apparently felt I was being borderline racist, although since a person of any race can be a Muslim, I don’t accept that. To be fair, I also got several people who agreed with me.

  8. screechymonkey says

    I’m a little conflicted about this article.

    On the one hand, of course I agree that we should all be willing to give a hearing to arguments that challenge our beliefs, even deeply held ones. And there’s a very unfortunate tendency for religions to try to insulate themselves from criticism by dismissing all criticism as “offensive.”

    And yet, I also don’t want to fall into the Dawkins Trap of dismissing offensiveness as some petty mere emotion that distracts us from pure logical inquiry. And I certainly don’t believe that anyone is entitled to anyone else’s attention.

    Those students had as much right to walk out of Blackmore’s lecture as the rest of us have to change the channel when someone is “explaining” how “those people” in Ferguson are getting what they deserve, or to walk out of a comedy club during a “hilarious” set of rape “jokes,” or to close the browser window when I discover that an article is just the 1001st iteration of the same “atheists are immoral” diatribe I’ve seen before. And if I had been at some summer school program and found myself sitting in a lecture about why Jesus is Lord, I would have been tempted to walk out myself. (Though more likely I would have just taken a nap.)

    Now I guess I can distinguish those examples I just gave on the grounds that in all of the cases, I’ve already heard the “arguments” before, so I’m not closing myself off to contrary views by declining to waste more time on them. It may not be terribly likely that a group of young adults has heard about “religion as a memeplex” before.

    But, as is being discussed on another thread currently, we shouldn’t assume what other people have or haven’t experienced. Whether they’ve heard the specific term “meme” used before, I would not be surprised if many of those in the audience had certainly heard their minority religion criticized before, on the grounds that its adherents do “strange things” based on “ridiculous promises” made by the religion.

    I don’t know. I’m not trying to defend shutting oneself off from criticism. But I think I’d like to hear from some of those who walked out before I start wringing my hands about the fate of the world.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    moarscienceplz @ # 7 – you haven’t really participated at Pharyngula until you get “a fair amount of pushback”. Consider it a rite of initiation.

  10. chrislawson says

    screechy@9, I get what you’re saying, but Blackmore wasn’t saying those people should have no *right* to get up and leave, she was just saddened that so many chose to do so. On the other hand, none of them appeared to try to censor her in any way, so one could take it as a good sign that these people, offended for their religious sensibilities, were content to walk out and were happy to talk to Blackmore about it, albeit angrily and defensively, at the end of the session.

    The only really savage criticism I have of the offended ones in Blackmore’s story was the person who was angry at her for making them feel ignorant. That’s the whole point of education, isn’t it? To work out where you’re ignorant and learn to be less so?

  11. Crimson Clupeidae says

    So a bunch of them got and left….

    ….and pretty much proved her point. Thanks, I guess.

  12. Dave Ricks says

    Blackmore was 10/10 trolling —
    • She showed the students their families and communities have silly and dangerous ways, implicitly versus her ways, implicitly not silly and dangerous.
    • By making her superiority implicit, her young audience could not unpack things fast enough to call her on: 1) her implied superiority, and 2) her trick of implying her superiority (i.e., the audience can feel offended by the trick of packing itself, but be unable to articulate why).
    • She sensed she might offend some group, so her solution was offending as many groups as she could think of. Oh wait, she’s serious, let me laugh even harder, except I was a little aghast at her Internet audience siding with her as if she was treating her audience well there, but now I’m laughing at that, too.
    • About the Danish cartoons: Religion aside, what should I expect if I told someone to look away because I’m about to make a hand gesture that might offend them? Me saying that would be the same as me flipping them the finger.
    • Again with the packing, she packed her implied flipped finger into a passive-aggressive trick (i.e. again, her tricking people with packing is offensive itself).
    • I agree with Katy Cordeth about the context of Blackmore delivering these offensive points from her academic standing versus kids with academic aspirations. Or to make Cordeth’s point in a way that might be more familiar here, Blackmore aimed the satire of the Danish cartoons punching down.

    Overall, I agree with Katy Cordeth on context: “Audiences are good at recognizing when a performer is hostile toward them.” And the students were right to complain Blackmore made them feel ignorant: they were ignorant of the tools they would need to unpack those bullets of 10/10 trolling. And Blackmore feeling shaken by the outcome reads like a case study in Eric Berne’s Games People Play: “Oh no, how did this surprise reaction happen to me?”

    Ultimately, I’d like to see Blackmore give a memeplex analysis of how she justified her trolling points in my bullets, and how she got support on the Internet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *