Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Talisman memes

"You can't prove God doesn't exist!"

"There is microevolution but there's absolutely no evidence for macroevolution."

"It takes as much faith not to believe in God as to believe."

"Christians face serious persecution in the United States today."

"Science can't prove itself, so we can't trust it either."

These statements, and hundreds more like them, are all too familiar to anyone who has tried to engage a committed believer. They're all also false. In fact, they're so overwhelmingly clearly false, that it takes a rather substantial suspension of disbelief to accept that the person saying one of them actually believes it is true.

Since I don't believe that these people are actually stupid (or wilfully ignorant, etc.) to believe these statements if they actually spend any time thinking about them (see nota bene at bottom), and since they have no weight in a serious discussion, I've spent a little time pondering what purpose they really serve. In seeing what I think may be their actual function, I have arrived upon a name for such statements.

I call statements like these "talisman memes."
The Talisman of Charlemagne: opulent and nonmagical
The construction is simple.
  • A talisman is defined as "an object marked with magic signs and believed to confer on its bearer supernatural powers or protection," or more simply as "something that apparently has magic power," and
  • A meme is "an element of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp. imitation."
Obviously, talismans do not possess magical powers, whatever people believe about them. Particularly, talismans do not possess the ability to ward off negative influences, although people may rely upon them for that purpose.

A talisman meme, then, is a memetic object, usually in the form of a common phrase, sentence, or argument, that is used primarily to ward off dissenting ideas or challenges to one's beliefs.

Particularly, I intend the term to mean such memes that do not actually possess solid argumentative weight, although there is a belief that it is there. Like with a real talisman, I expect that if someone were to examine a talisman meme with even modest skepticism, the belief in its magical powers would crumble. I've found the term useful and so have written this in order to share it with others.

N.B.: I actually do think that a fair proportion of the people who use talisman memes do believe that they are solid, true statements with argumentative weight (perhaps even that they are clever instead of banal). I do not, however, think that this belief stems from stupidity. I'd pin it on the same underlying force that enables people to believe in the alleged powers of physical talismans: emotional desperation.


  1. I think it generally stems from trust. They trust someone who has said this and never look into the matter themselves. When I was a kid my parents believed all of the anti-evolution things they heard in church. They didn't have the interest to go check on those statements themselves, but they trusted their pastor.

  2. I see these as desperation in an argument. One has to respond with something (the only other option would be to admit the other has point), so these types of statements are thrown out, hoping that something might stick.

    As opposed to rationally considering the elements of an argument.