What is Religion?: Religion as Meme

In my last post I considered Dawkins’ claim that religions were dangerous memes that can hijack a person and cause them to become a ‘memeoid.’ We found that Dawkins was essentially correct, but was being one sided. In fact we look up to many ‘memeoids’ willing to die for their memes (i.e. for their beliefs or ideals, whether religious or not). 

Nevertheless, Dawkins’ hurtful prejudice aside, there should be little doubt that he is right that religion is a type of ideological meme and that people that follow religions are, in a sense, memeoids. The members of a religion wish to take their religious meme and replicate it in some way and are willing to give up a great many otherwise personal desires for the sake of replicating their meme.

But of course this is also true for any replicable ideology. It’s just as true for political memes both good and bad. There have been ‘memeoids’ in favor of Communism and Nazism but also for Democracy and personal liberty. Thank goodness for the meme we might call ‘abolition of slavery’ and for the many memeoids that brought it about. Thank goodness for the meme called ‘Civil Rights’ and the memeoids that sacrificed their personal lives – and sometimes they physical lives – for it. The list could go on and on.

Each of these are rightly called ‘memes’ because the goal is to take an idea and spread it. Of course memes can be just about anything. A chain letter is a meme too. So is the wealth of human knowledge that we replicate by teaching it in schools. The thing that makes is a meme is that it somehow replicates itself.

Each of these types of memes fills the equivalent of a cultural ‘ecological niche.’ And just like in biology, memes often have to compete with one another. Continue reading

What is Religion?: Are Religions Memes?

Many know of arch-militant atheist Richard Dawkins. But what he’s really (originally) famous for is being one of the important biologists to ever live. In fact, he’s the one that coined the term “meme” for what I feel is one of the most important new scientific concepts needed to make sense of our world.

What is a meme? He describes it like this:

The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. … But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. …I abbreviate mimeme to meme. …It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’ (The Selfish Gene, p. 192)

Now of course Dawkins can’t let a great new concept like this go without making sure he takes potshots at religion. Sure enough, just a few pages later, he invokes his new “meme” concept to attack religion.

The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to the deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. (p. 193)

Oh, but he’s just getting started. For he later adds that religious people are (or can be) “memeoids.” Isn’t that just the right sort of ridiculous name to make religious people seem a little more scary and a little less human?  Continue reading