Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Atheists aren't immune to the religion meme: The Hump's Revelation

If you're anything like me, minus the hump, you probably think you're above believing in the kind of nonsensical things we associate with religion; things like "soul" "the spiritual" or other incorporeal concepts. You may be surprised to find out we are not totally immune to the supernatural meme.

I am currently reading Daniel Dennett's  Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon .  It's a very interesting read on the origin and evolution of religion, approaching it from a scientific perspective. In it he discusses animism.  Merriam-Webster defines animism this way: 

1:  a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit
2:  attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects
3:  belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies

While Dennett discusses animism as it relates to assigning objects either supernatural powers, or having human like attributes, as I was reading I stumbled onto something that got me thinking about my own susceptibility toward imbuing objects with "something more", something beyond their bland objective reality.  The highlight definition above is the aspect I'm going to proffer we are all guilty of buying into, consciously or unconsciously.

What value would you place on an 18th century American made maple desk?  I'm no furniture or antiques expert so I wouldn't even venture an actual dollar value.  But if that otherwise nondescript, albeit well made desk, has a provenance proving that it was once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and was the very desk he used to compose the Virginia Constitution, and the famous letter to the Danbury Baptists reaffirming the importance of the "separation of church and state",  my guess is you'd assess a much much higher value than you would for the desk's twin that did not have such an honored past.

Another example: would you not increase the valuation of a pristine Kentucky rifle of the early 19th century, if the rifle was known to be owned by Davey Crockett? If you were a gun collector you sure would.
But why?

Why should a diamond owned by Liz Taylor have more intrinsic value than the identical diamond owned by your aunt Tilly?

Our first instinct would be to proclaim the enhanced value is due to it being a part of our history; directly traceable to a notable personality who made a singular contribution of some sort.  Well, yes... that sounds perfectly reasonable -  we think. But if the desk, or the rifle, or diamond were indistinguishable from any other example, exactly what specifically contributes to the perhaps ten, twenty, one-hundred fold enhanced value of the inanimate object in question?

This, I proffer, is where we are unconsciously imbuing an object with, for lack of a better word ... a spiritual quality. Something in that object enhances its value because it was touched, handled, employed by a famous person even though it feels, looks and works the same as its twin that has no famous provenance. 

Does touching, viewing, owning that object bring us "closer" to it's noble owner?  Does the object carry with it a spark of what that person stood for?  Does that object border on our accepting some concept of quasi-soul or consciousness of the inanimate than we as atheists and freethinkers are comfortable admitting?  What is this if not an "attribution of conscious life to ... inanimate objects"?

I've tried to rationalize why this is. I keep trying to tell myself  "It's, it's, it's because it's part of history, and thus is deserved of  a special value!"  But, that's emotion , that's "the heart speaking"  (as a Christian might say).  It's not thinking in purely rational and reasoned terms with the brain.

The fact is the supernatural meme, handed down from generation to generation, is alive in all of us to a degree we may not want to acknowledge. On the upside, in this benign form it doesn't make us behead people, persecute them, or drive us to teach our young lies.  I can accept that.


Anonymous said...

Well, I dunno, but my aunt Tilly had one of Elvis's pubic hairs and I wouldn't take a million dollars for it.

Kris Beazley said...

I liked your input into the methodology and science toward understanding why we endow and revere objects. I would wonder if it is a sign of a healthy brain to do so. If Atheist willingly try to root out this behavior would it be unhealthy for them? What positive gain does such behavior offer if any?

Just some thoughts. Thanks Hump

NewEnglandBob said...

I don't agree here. The only reason the object has more value is because you and/or others perceive that it has value.

Our monetary system works the same way. Why is a $20 bill worth more that a $1 bill? Because we all agree that it is worth more. All the bills are worth the same, they are just pieces of paper with ink on them.

Dromedary Hump said...

Good questions.

I don't think its a matter of healthy vs unhealthy. I think it's simply something we inherit and pass on..hence "meme".
It is a rather benign aspect of a vestigial superstitious "tail" no more to worry about than our own tail bone, or the useless nipples on men.

as for positive gains..I'll have to think longer on that. But, perhaps preserving history might be a positive by product of imbuing inanimate objects associated with historical figures with some special qualities.


Dromedary Hump said...

I wouldn't go more than $0.04 for the Elvis pubic hair.
But if you can produce on with provenance that it belonged to Cleopatra...get back to me.

I'm sure it has mystical powers ;)

Dromedary Hump said...

Money has specific value because it is backed by the government and assigned a value.

Items that have no more qualitative value than another, except for who they belonged to is wholly different. People independently assign value be cause of some...what... "Mystical" characteristics? It's why someone would pay big bucks for a lock of hair from Lincoln's head, but wouldn't pay a penny for a lock of hair from the head of the daughter of an usher at Ford's theater.

it's a peculiar human trait.

Linda K said...

The analogy doesn't really hold if you consider that with antiques or similar desks or whatever... the provenance must still have EVIDENCE. We don't take somebody's word for it that it was Liz's diamond. We insist on photos, signatures, some backstory proof to substantiate the claims. We don't take this stuff on faith.
They do.

Kompani said...

The problem is that 'value', in a capitalist system, does not rely upon logic or rationality but on the irrational notion of 'desire/scarcity'. One diamond owned by Elizabeth Taylor is unique and highly desirable where as there are thousands of diamonds owned by many thousands of aunts desired by, say, a few hundred people.

Dromedary Hump said...

I think you're missing the point. The proof of it's ownership by a historical personage isn't at all the issue. The issue is why we imbue anything that is inanimate with special value and or power because of who it belonged to.

Here, try this:

where does this "mystical" value we place on objects that in fact have no more special/real/quantitative value than a like object that was unconnected to a dead person or the ancestor come from?

If an unconnected item was just as important to keep that person's memory alive, you could buy a replacement for the original and it should have the same effect. But it doesn't. Only the one that ancestor owned, or touched, has this mystical value. That's the "mystical" the supernatural like meme.

You have a teacup from your deceased grandmother. if you broke it, the one thing that you owned to connect to the memory of your loved one, would you go out and buy an exact duplicate of it so you wouldn't forget Grandma?

If your answer is "No, because it wouldn't be the same" , then even though it would possess the identical physical qualities in every way of the original cup, "it's not the same." Hence, you have imbued grandma's teacup with a "special inexplicable in physical terms/ supernatural" value.

That's the religion meme at a very innocuous way..but at work never the less.

Hope that clarifies things.

Dromedary Hump said...

Please see my response to Linda.

this concept isn't easy for the rational side of us to accept...but the grandma tea cup example in my reply to Linda may convince you that there is a religious meme at work here..animism in its purist sense.

NewEnglandBob said...

I think we can discount things owned/touched by others as being religious spirituality. If many people value it, then it has value.

Hump, I think you are down to only one area of possible spirituality. That being something owned/touched by a relative, where no one else (or few) also value it.

For some people, that could be spiritual, but not in every case.

I have a little child's wooden stool, given to me by my grandparents 55 years ago. It is useless, but I still keep it, not because it spiritually means anything to me, but because every time I see it, it reminds me of my grandparents. I place no real value on it, and if I lose it or destroy it, my life does not get shattered.

Being human, we can't always remember those we used to know. I don't see any spirituality in keeping an item to help you remember. I set reminders on my iPhone to tell me about upcoming events. It is analogous to the 'keepsake' as a reminder.

Dromedary Hump said...

The wooden stool is better than the famous person/collectability examples I used in the blog.

Please read my response to LINDA above.

Everything we're saying leads back to a physical connection with the dead thru an inanimate object. But only a SPECIAL inanimate object that was touched by the person whose memory we revere.

That,no matter how we define it, how we want to rationalize it,how we want to justify it IS, in fact, imbuing a SPECIAL OBJECT BUT NOT SINGULAR nor ONE OF A KIND object with a special connective "power" (or however you want to classify the non-physical aspect) that its identical twin object would not have the power to prompt.

That is the definition of animism.

I simply identified this human reality as a sort of animism, a form of the religion meme... innocuous, harmless... but there nevertheless. Denying it doesn't make it go away, or remove the mystical from it, or from us.

Perhaps evolution will negate this hold over from the religious meme in time. It really makes no difference since it doesn't hurt anyone as the more traditional and obvious attributes of the religious meme do.

Dromedary Hump said...

PS: if the loss of that stool would not cause you angst..perhaps your religion/animism meme is weaker than in others.

I know atheists who if they lost the one connection to their ancestor, an object of otherwise no financial value, they'd be devastated, and would NOT be consoled by replacement of an identical object...because that replacement lacked the "something" .

The religion meme is simply stronger in those people.

NewEnglandBob said...


Not only would the loss of the stool not bother me much, but if it was replace by another one, it would still remind me of my grandparents. I see the stool only as a symbol, not as an animistic object.

Now my Patriots hat and shirt - they allow the team to win and have special powers! (just kidding).

paul said...

Why does a genuine Masterwork command more value than a non-detectable forgery? Visually, they are identical in every way. Why does the wealthy collector of fine art really have anything over someone of more modest means who fills a room with copies?

It is truly a mystery to me.

Dromedary Hump said...

To paraphrase a Star Wars line: "The force is weak in this one." You likely have a weaker religious meme than other people who place a high value on a "totem" that has no intrinsic value except for its connectivity to the dead.
Maybe you're more evolved than the average atheist ;)

yes, I see a similarity there as well; but perhaps less of a mystery.

A piece of art from a master is singular. Even if the copies' brush strokes are identical and the colors identical, etc., etc., only ONE is an original, thus it was the genesis for the copies. It commands special respect, which we give by assessing incremental value.

That one painting stands alone, much as the first hand made prototype for say a Kentucky Long rifle..the very first working model .. would have higher value than its subsequent production copies that number in the 1000s. Less of a meme issue, more of a respect for technology and man's creativity and ingenuity.

To me, it lacks the level of mysticism associated with "this belonged to a dead person and that in and of it self gives it value to me, and possibly me alone, ...albeit, I cannot justify that value in real terms" .

See the difference?

Linda K said...

Thanks, Hump, you have elucidated the concept very well and I now see your point.
This tendency, or meme, allows believers to see jeezus on a piece of toast... atheists not so much.
But what a great subject to pursue in a scientific study. Are atheists ever hoarders, as we've seen exemplified on tv shows? Were any of those hoarders admitted atheists? Or was hoarding enough of a sin already? Too much false meaning is attached to things where really there is none... by religidiots... but by atheist hoarders as well? Or moreso?

Rotgut McCoy said...

I love this idea. I think it's absolutely true that while we can think ourselves out of supernatural beliefs, (or at least try) they have evolutionary roots that we can never erase. Andy Thompson wrote a super short book called Why We Believe in Gods, and it covers a lot of this. It was my first exposure to evolutionary psychology, so I probably found it more eye opening than you would, but I still recommend it anytime this stuff comes up.

If I'm not mistaken, you're hitting on the mind body split issue. Our ability to imagine people when they aren't there allowed us to become the super social primates we are now. But because it's part of our brain hardware, we can't turn it off when they die, and we're stuck still mentally treating people as if they were alive. I know it's problematic, but I think it's cool. And who wants to be perfect anyway? Being flawed is way more fun. It forces us to have a sense of humor about ourselves.

I think in a lot of cases, your premise is totally correct. Grandma's ashes aren't her, but we can't just toss them out because we feel like we're throwing Grandma away. But I would argue that some of your examples aren't animism, they're more like what you described with the long rifle prototype. To me, Jefferson's desk would be extremely valuable, not because of Jefferson, but because of the work he did. Putting value on the desk where American church state separation was penned seems more like putting value on the original piece of art. It's the birthplace of a modern value that I personally hold dear. Paying more for that particular desk signals a value in the ideas born there. Ideas are always going to be in the ether, but that doesn't make them woo. A contribution to humanity in the form of a desk is no less legitimate than a contribution in the form of a prototype. Ideas are the most powerful thing on the planet. I think they deserve value and celebration. Whatever brings those ideas to life for you personally is all good, whether it's stopping to think whenever you see a nickel, or paying out the ass for some old wood.

Dromedary Hump said...


Glad that helped.
In Dennett''s book, which I referenced in my article, he endorses the scientific study of what makes people religious, how it began and evolved. I'm half way thru, it's fascinating.

Dromedary Hump said...


Thanks for that. Yes, mind body split has much to do with this

And you're probably right. If I had to do it all over again, I'd have used the ancestral teacup of poor deceased grandma to press my point of how even atheists are subject to the ancient religious meme to some degree.
We'll breed it out eventually.

I still think there is something more than just respect for history in the human adoration of the specific items (I'd call them akin to totems) owned by historical personages.

I'll look into Andy Thompson's book. Thanks.

longhorn believer said...

This is a fascinating subject:

To Linda on her question of can atheists be hoarders. The answer is yes. I live with one. My boyfriend hoards books, papers, old electronics, plastic and glass containers and more. He's been an atheist for three or four decades, and was never very religious before that. Hoarding is just part of his personality. Fortunately for the sake of our relationship, he has been willing to get rid of a lot of it.

Objects have power over us for many reasons, not just because they are connected to a person or the past or imbued with magical qualities. Which brings me to my point. Atheists are human with human emotions. Now amount of logic or reason can completely rid us of emotion, nor would we want it to. Emotion actually helps us reason and survive in the world alongside other emotional people. Our societal rules are based on them, even the most rational and reasonable ones.

And I have book to recommend on the subject called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haight (sp?). He posits that reason is what we use to influence ourselves and others to agree to an emotional decision we have already arrived at. He also talks about how different things are considered sacred in different societies. What is sacred in the US maybe different than what is considered sacred in India, and it doesn't make much sense except perhaps in terms of the evolution of that society.

In the end, I think atheists become atheists for emotional reasons just as theists are believers for emotional reasons. Logic and reason help us explain and justify our emotional, human decision not to believe. But the underlying causation in reaching the decision is the same because we're all using the same human brain.

Dromedary Hump said...

Good post, thanks.

On "emotion". Yes, emotion is a natural and human quality. we wouldn't want to be without it. But rarely do we look at certain aspects of our emotion and ask: "Why?"

Most of the time it's unnecessary. We don't have to ask why we cry at the death of a loved one, or sad movie, or out of extreme happiness. We don't have to ask why we laugh at something funny, or cute.

But when it comes to the emotional devotion to objects..the tie that binds us to a person or an event through an inanimate object..not just any object, but one touched or held, or intimately associated with that person or event, we can and should ask why because it tends to defy the obvious, or logic and reason.

It's a human emotion that is observed in every culture..all cultures.

If we take a step back and dissect without emotion or respect to any sacred cows,then nothing short of a recessive supernatural meme - that lives to some degree or another in all of us, handed down from eons of superstitious beliefs - can account for that sacred respect, dare I say adoration, for that special totem object.

Anonymous said...

Value for an object is related to one's own or another's system. Thomas Jefferson's desk would be worth more to me than Timothy Jefferson's because the chances I could sell it later at a higher price would be much better. I am not beyond nostalgia, I love to wear my own clothes well past their shelf life but I am aware of this bias, as my own. Do I love museums? Sure, older objects have increased value rather than fakes because there is information in them, as to the means of their production and so on that we might capture later.

Dromedary Hump said...

yes, resale is a valid reason to buy historic items owned/touched by a historical personage.
But that's not the question: the question is why do we place value on an iatimate object higher than we';d place on the identical object from the same historical period.

i don't want to repeat myself as I fear I have done in this comment section..but if you peruse the comments in detail you'd see that as humans we assign a "mystical" quality to objects touched by certain personages (dead relatives included) that defies simple reasoning and borders on "magical" / "spiritual". And that assignment of those "qualities" makes it a relative to the religion meme.

Thks for your input.