You may have noticed that people who convert to religion after the age of 20 or so are generally more zealous than people who grew up with the same religion. People who grow up with a religion learn how to cope with its more inconvenient parts by partitioning them off, rationalizing them away, or forgetting about them. Religious communities actually protect their members from religion in one sense – they develop an unspoken consensus on which parts of their religion members can legitimately ignore. New converts sometimes try to actually do what their religion tells them to do. I remember many times growing up when missionaries described the crazy things their new converts in remote areas did on reading the Bible for the first time – they refused to be taught by female missionaries; they insisted on following Old Testament commandments; they decided that everyone in the village had to confess all of their sins against everyone else in the village; they prayed to God and assumed He would do what they asked; they believed the Christian God would cure their diseases. We would always laugh a little at the naivete of these new converts; I could barely hear the tiny voice in my head saying but they’re just believing that the Bible means what it says…
How do we explain the blindness of people to a religion they grew up with? Cultural immunity. Europe has lived with Christianity for nearly 2000 years. European culture has co-evolved with Christianity. Culturally, memetically, it’s developed a tolerance for Christianity. These new Christian converts, in Uganda, Papua New Guinea, and other remote parts of the world, were being exposed to Christian memes for the first time, and had no immunity to them. [...]
The reason I bring this up is that intelligent people sometimes do things more stupid than stupid people are capable of. There are a variety of reasons for this; but one has to do with the fact that all cultures have dangerous memes circulating in them, and cultural antibodies to those memes. The trouble is that these antibodies are not logical. On the contrary; these antibodies are often highly illogical. They are the blind spots that let us live with a dangerous meme without being impelled to action by it. The dangerous effects of these memes are most obvious with religion; but I think there is an element of this in many social norms. We have a powerful cultural norm in America that says that all people are equal (whatever that means); originally, this powerful and ambiguous belief was counterbalanced by a set of blind spots so large that this belief did not even impel us to free slaves or let women or non-property-owners vote. We have another cultural norm that says that hard work reliably and exclusively leads to success; and another set of blind spots that prevent this belief from turning us all into Objectivists.
A little reason can be a dangerous thing. The landscape of rationality is not smooth; there is no guarantee that removing one false belief will improve your reasoning instead of degrading it. Sometimes, reason lets us see the dangerous aspects of our memes, but not the blind spots that protect us from them. Sometimes, it lets us see the blind spots, but not the dangerous memes. Either of these ways, reason can lead an individual to be unbalanced, no longer adapted to their memetic environment, and free to follow previously-dormant memes through to their logical conclusions. (To paraphrase Steve Weinberg, “For a smart person to do something truly stupid, they need a theory.” Actually, I could have quoted him directly – “stupid” is just a lighter shade of “evil”. Communism and fascism both begin by exercising complete control over the memetic environment, in order to create a new man stripped of cultural immunity, who will do whatever they tell him to.)