What is Religion?: Religious Beliefs as Memes

In my last post I accepted the fact that religions were in fact memes (of some sort) and that adherents of a religion are memeoids (in some sense). Of course this is also true of any ideology. I also accepted that memes are just like genes in that they compete with each via Darwinian evolution with each other in varying degrees.

While this differs in intensity from religious meme to religious meme, there does seem to be a common element between most or maybe even all religious memes. This common element is ‘beliefs’ or what we might call ‘truth claims.’

Now it’s becoming popular fashion within many theologically liberal circles to try to deny this. Theologically liberal individuals will often suggest that the core meme of religions is actually spread of morality or of rituals. I do not deny that religious memes are ideological moral worldviews. I will talk about this in a future post. And I do not deny that religious memes do commonly utilize rituals for various reasons and often one of those reasons is to help replicate itself. And I will not deny that some religions see their ‘beliefs’ (i.e. truth claims) as more core to their identity than others do.

But are there any religions that can truly be said to be divorced from beliefs and truth claims?

Christianity is often held up as the quintessential example of a religious-meme based on truth claims, the most important of which is the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. Judaism seems to be a meme that is a strong mix of certain beliefs – particularly Moses talking to God – as well as ethnic and ritual concerns. Islam is a good example of a highly ritually based religious meme (i.e. pray to Mecca five times a day), though certainly belief in truth claims plays a pivotal role as well.

Does Buddhism’s Meme Include Truth Claims?

What about Buddhism? Buddhism is often held up as a religious meme that doesn’t really care about its truth claims or beliefs and cares more about ritual practices like meditation. Is this really true? No, not really. Certainly, compared to Christianity, Buddhism, as a meme, downplays the importance of its truth claims (which, of course, differ from form to form just like in Christianity.) But it is unlikely that Buddhism could be stripped of its beliefs/truth claims and still be recognizably Buddhism. It would be the death of its meme too.

Besides, such comparisons seem a bit unwarranted to me. One of the key truth claims of Buddhism is that we all reincarnate and do so based on the karma we collected in this life. A Buddhist monk, if they are especially virtuous, may finally have reached a reincarnation where the Buddhist equivalent to ‘salvation’ (i.e. nirvana) is within their reach. But everyone else who dies will be born again into a new life that is determined by how much of Buddhist belief and practice have been learned. So it would be only natural for Buddhists to, compared to Christians anyhow, feel a lot less need to try to convert everyone to all of their beliefs or even their core beliefs. If a Buddhist can get you to just start meditating they are ‘saving you’ to some degree because the odds that you will be reborn a Buddhist in the next life just went up!

If we look at Buddhism and Christianity from a purely temporal perspective, it might see as if Buddhism does not care about its beliefs as much as Christianity or that they are more ‘open’ than Christianity. But when looked at through Buddhist eyes the gap narrows considerably.

And besides, I do not deny that some religious memes are more belief-based and some more ritual-based. Clearly Buddhism is a collection of less belief-based religious memes than Christian ones are. The real point here is that all religions are memes (of some sort) and that it is very common for religious-memes to have as part of their core ‘meme’ that they wish to replicate be a collection of truth claims or beliefs.

Beliefs as Memes

In fact, I would argue that (though I do not know this for sure) its very likely that it’s not just ‘very common’ but maybe even ‘always.’ Just exactly how could a religion exist without being a group of people gathered around some sort of belief that equates to a faith-based truth claim? How could that group have a religious identity without this?

Sometimes we have to search a bit further to find it, but it seems like it’s always there. What about Unitarian Universalism? This is a religion intentionally setup to emphasize practice over belief. The idea is that you attend a UU ‘church’ and community and receive the benefits of a religious community and the assistance on your personal spiritual goals with whatever practices and rituals you wish. In fact, UU often goes out of its way to find joint practices and to utilize all sorts of scripture from the worlds religions.

But two things should be noted here. First, UU isn’t likely to be a very successful meme in the big scheme of things. It’s probably just a pretty small ecological niche with its greatest appeal to dissatisfied former religious adherents of other religions. I would guess that its easier to create a community around ‘rejection’ of ‘former beliefs’ than to create a community around only and solely based on rituals and practices. UU is not the latter in my opinion.

But I note something else here: is this not a truth claim or belief of sorts? Does not Unitarian Universalism form its religious identity around the truth claim that there are no truth claims? So even in the case of Unitarian Universalism we find that belief and truth claims form a part of the core of the meme that is working to replicate itself.

The Mormon Meme

Regardless of whether or not it’s true that all religions have truth claims as part of the heart of their core meme, there should be no doubt at all that for the LDS Church the core meme is, as of today, rooted in belief in its truth claims.

What is the replicable heart of the LDS Church? What is the cultural transmission that we and our forefathers have lived and died for? In other words, what is our meme?

Of course it’s a lot of things with various degrees of weight. And what is included in that meme evolves from generation to generation, just like genes. But it is possible to identify a core meme that really isn’t in any significant doubt. For the LDS Church our core meme is what Richard Bushman called ‘a narrative’ that supplies us with answers about the meaning of life and puts us into a special relationship with reality (i.e. with God.)

That narrative is long and impossible to write down in a single post or even a single book, but I believe I can summarize it in a way that implies much of the rest of it:

We are literally the spirit children of our Heavenly Father that in a pre-existent state choose to come to earth to receive a body and be tried and tested. While on earth we forget our former existence so that we can be tried by faith. God does not leave us alone. Instead he follows a pattern of calling prophets and speaking to them. These prophets talk to God and receive his revelation and also his authority (which modernly we call ‘priesthood’) and they are commanded by God to setup what we modernly call a ‘Church’ organization. This has happened throughout the ages and there have been many ‘Churches’ that were authorized by God in this way, though never more than one at a time within in an area that can contact each other, for God is not the author of confusion. Because God wants us to choose him of our own free will, he has to allow for us to choose to reject his message. This has happened many times in history. One of these ‘dispensations’ was extra special. It was the coming of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and saved us both from sin and from death. But even this dispensation ended with an eventual ‘apostacy’ from the original truths. Each of these ‘apostasies’ from the authorized ministers of God was eventually overcome through the calling of a new prophet and authority from God being given anew. The last time this happened – and it is prophesied this will be the last time – was when God called Joseph Smith as prophet to the whole world and commanded and authorized him to setup a Church organization, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to restore certain priesthood authorities (by the appearance of bodily angels no less), rituals (i.e. ordinances), and doctrines that had been lost to the world and that God wanted taught brought to the world before Jesus comes again in the second coming. Joseph Smith and his successors in the Presidency of the LDS Church are God’s choose prophets to the whole world and the LDS Church is the only Church modernly that is setup by God Himself through a Prophet. The leaders of the LDS Church, as authorized successors to Joseph Smith, are the sole bearers of this ‘priesthood authority’ in the world and have a mandate from God to take these doctrines and authorized practices to the world to them that choose to believe in it.

Part of the LDS meme is not that all others go to  @#!*% for not believing all truths. That is a non-LDS Christian belief that LDS adherents do not accept. Rather, the LDS meme captures the idea that truth is truth. When people die and move on to the spirit world many (some believe most) will eventually accept God’s truths and in this sense all will be part of one giant historical and modern “Church” or assembly of God. God will then separate us (or perhaps I should say we will separate ourselves) into various degrees of glory. Those that accept all the truths and rituals will have the opportunity (if they so choose) to eventually reach Exaltation which is understood as becoming like God is. It is to literally become joint-heirs with Christ as the Bible teaches, or in other words to inherit all that Jesus inherits, which is literally all things. (See Romans 8:17)

For the sake of simplicity, let me summarize my summary to a few points that will be useful in discussing the LDS Meme:

  1. Jesus Christ was literal and uniquely the Son of God and was Divine and Atoned for our Sins.
  2. Jesus Christ was literally and bodily resurrected and lives again. All will be resurrected because of this.
  3. Joseph Smith was a prophet to the whole world called by God to restore lost truths – namely the ‘plan of salvation’ – known in times past (in varying degrees) but lost.
  4. Joseph Smith received direct revelations from God, including being given the power to translate an ancient book of scripture called The Book of Mormon.
  5. Joseph Smith was given unique authority from God to perform necessary saving ordinances.
  6. Joseph Smith’s successors in the Presidency are the unique holders of the directing ‘keys’ of this ‘priesthood’ authority today. No one else has it as it had to be restored bodily by angels (namely John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John.)
  7. The living apostles and prophets today are guided by God through revelation.

This is the underlying meme of the LDS Church. For all the cultural and ritual traits that also exist in the LDS Church and play such a pivotal role, ultimately the LDS meme is – at its core – is this narrative. It is not possible to separate the LDS Church from its truth claims without killing the meme.

Other Religions Considered

Is this true for all religions? As I said above, I believe, yes. Would Catholics still be Catholics without belief in the primacy of the Roman Church? Would Buddhists still be Buddhists if they practiced only secular meditation? Would Unitarian Universalists still be an identifiable community if not for the shared belief that religious beliefs should not be shared?

But even if I am wrong about this as a general principle (i.e. if there is some counter case I am just not aware of) this is still the LDS meme nonetheless. This is why there is so little wiggle room on the above narrative, but considerable possible interpretations about the Adam-God doctrine or just about anything else.

What Practicing-But-Not-Believing Mormons Have Missed

This is a missing principle that the practicing-but-not-believing LDS people have missed almost entirely. Yes, you can decide that the priesthood ban was a mistake without killing the meme. But you can’t decide that such a mistake means all religions have equivalent authority without snuffing the meme out.

You can even decide that all religious leaders were ‘inspired’ and thus even in some limited sense legitimately ‘a prophet’ without hurting the meme. But you can’t decide that Joseph Smith was solely prophet to the Mormons without snuffing out the meme.

Could The Meme be Changed Without Killing It?

Might we not change the ‘offensive’ parts (from a liberal point of view) of the narrative-meme above into something else that is less offensive by augmenting it with other compelling memes based on, say, rituals and practices?

Here I must speak in purely sociological terms. I am assuming, for the sake of argument, that we are not considering the point of view that God does or does not remove his authority from an authorized Church if we decide to depart from what he wanted it to be.

And the answer is ‘it depends on what you mean.’ It would be easy, for example, to have the LDS Church meme adopt the Catholic meme. The Catholic meme is certainly a viable meme in its own right and has much in common with the LDS meme. So in a sense one could say that we could ‘change the meme’ yet keep it viable. We could all just get baptized Catholic and then be “former LDS people.” But isn’t this just a linguist acrobatic trick to avoid saying ‘the Catholic meme killed the LDS meme.’

It is hard to imagine what an alternative LDS meme not based on that above core narrative would even look like and yet still be a viable meme (i.e. able to replicate itself.) The Community of Christ decided to suggest that the ‘restoration’ was just one of many possible ways to serve God and drew closer to the already viable Protestant Christian meme. How successful was this? How good are they at transmitting their meme to their children? [1] To what degree has the primary meme replication strategy for the CoC become harvesting malcontent LDS Church members? (Or should I say, memers?) [2]

It is yet to be seen how successful this strategy will ultimately be, but it hasn’t been very successful at all so far. And it’s not hard to see why. The simple truth is that “Rejectionism” (i.e. focusing your life around what you don’t believe instead of what you do believe) isn’t a very good long term meme replication strategy. I will write more about why this is in a future post, but for now, let’s admit that such strategies have never worked well and there aren’t any positive examples of it without first having that meme come up with its own compelling truth claims to replace the ones that were lost.

Perhaps the best example here is Protestantism. One could argue that they started out as simple “rejectionist Catholics.” They wanted to hold on to the beliefs that Catholic church had about Jesus but didn’t want to hold onto the authority claims of the Roman Church.

But Protestantism would not be alive today if it hadn’t gone on to form its own unique meme and formed its own effective replication strategy. One obvious point was replication through connection to political powers of its day. This might be the single most important part. But is there any doubt that Protestantisms choice to claim priesthood of the believer and the sole authority of the Bible was not a powerful and defining truth claim that allowed them to survive and effectively compete with the Catholic Church? And, more to the point, do people really consider Protestants to be ‘formers-Catholics’ today? Or are they effectively a religious-meme in their own right? (Okay, granted, it depends on how you define ‘religion’ and what you see as the core ‘meme’. But I think this is still a fair statement nonetheless.)

So doesn’t that imply that the LDS Church meme could decide, if it wanted to, to shuck it’s meme replication strategy of replicating the above narrative and replace it without a really compelling one based on, say, mediation practice or something?

Well, maybe, yes. But would it be the same meme any more? That is to say, would it still be the LDS Church? Or would it be identifiably something new and different now?

Could We Soften the Meme and Still Keep it Viable?

Could we take the above narrative and change it to be ‘more acceptable’ to those that don’t like the ‘exclusive’ nature that is hardwired into the narrative meme above? Of course we could. But could we do it without killing the meme?

I guess my own answer is “be realistic.” Would we get as many missionaries as we do if we didn’t literally believe this narrative meme must go forth to the entire world? (Would we get any?) Would we have the desire to replicate the meme if we only believed ‘this narrative isn’t really real’ or ‘it’s fine for some people.’ In short, is there any realistic chance that a softening of the narrative meme wouldn’t be equivalent to killing the meme.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s already monumentally difficult to transmit one’s religious meme to one’s children. [3] All religions lose adherents between generations and often in large numbers. (Here we’ll define ‘lose adherents’ as meaning anything from leaving the beliefs entirely in favor of a new set to becoming indifferent and nominal.) Would we have the tenacity to transmit our meme to our children even as well as we currently do, or would our children desire to accept it, if we believed it wasn’t literally true?

For better or worse, all religious memes are in Darwinian struggle with all others. They may not all use the same methods or means to replicate their meme (for example, not all directly proselytize) but all must be true to their meme’s ways of replicating if they wish their meme to survive. For the LDS Church, that is taking our correlated narrative-meme as literal truth to the world, often through direct proselytizing. To give this up would be to kill the meme. [4]


[1] CoC member, FireTag says: “Within a generation, conversions and baptisms of our own children were no longer able to keep up with deaths in an aging church. (We would have to increase our baptismal rate by 600% or so now just to stabilize ourselves.)” However, FireTag disagrees that the issue is theological. Regardless of the cause of the issue, the fact is that the CoC somehow lost it’s ‘memeness’ and could no longer replicate.

[2] This quote from FireTag is suggestive of a relationship between the CoC and run off from the LDS Church: “Since the LDS is so much larger than the CofChrist, leakage of LDS liberals toward the CofChrist “comet tail” is likely to be large enough to dwarf any movement from the CofChrist to these conservative RLDS bodies — without the LDS even needing to take notice.”

[3] I think the reason why people think that religious memes easily and almost automatically transmit from generation to generation (as Dawkins claims over and over again) is because if you meet a Christian on the street, there is a really good chance his parents were Christians too. However, I note that this is misleading and misses the real cause and effect. The truth is that most religious memes have died out. That is, most were ineffective at replicating. The reason we think religious memes easily replicate is because the surviving ones happen to be the ones that were effective at replicating.

[4] One question I didn’t address directly in the post was if we could ‘evolve’ the LDS Church over time into something more acceptable to those that believe in the liberal theological meme. Obviously the answer is always going to be “yes, we could.” But I think a fair question here is still “isn’t that just the same as killing the meme?”

We can always splice another organisms DNA in the place of something else. And we can always wait long enough that evolution creates a whole new species and the old ones go extinct. But if the goal is to preserve what makes the LDS church what it is then the question becomes much more difficult: can we change the core meme and still be the same effective religion? Can we do it and still be the same religion? Why can’t we, for example, accomodate both?

This is a difficult question and outside the scope of this post. I would like to take it up later. But for now, read FireTag’s post on expanding the Church vs. moving it which is interesting in it’s own right. My basic take is that the CoC pretty much followed the rules of memetics and we should expect this to be typical: survival of the fittest, with a clear loser and winner within a single organism. But I like FireTag’s idea of trying to come up with an alternative approach, although I don’t really believe anyone has as of yet found a successful way to make the ‘accomodation’ approach work long term. However, if there is a way to do it, memetics ought to give us hints as how to do it. I will give some of my own thoughts on how to ‘accomodate’ later on.

4 thoughts on “What is Religion?: Religious Beliefs as Memes

  1. I’m not clear on the whole “meme” thing, but other than that, I think
    I agree almost entirely. Yes, you can change things, and the changed
    thing may survive under its new form, but then it has become something

    “First, UU isn’t likely to be a very successful meme in the big scheme
    of things. It’s probably just a pretty small ecological niche with its
    greatest appeal to dissatisfied former religious adherents of other

    An astute observation.

  2. Thanks Agellius.

    The whole “meme” thing I have found is offputting to some. They can only think of chain letters.

    But memes are actually an emerging science. They are still in the very primative stage, thus the issue some have with it. But the basic idea — that of natural selection — is part of our deepest theories already. And ‘memes’ is really just a new word for what Popper proved out a long time ago about the philosophy of science. (Which is itself a collection of memes.)

  3. Yes, I think I have some idea what it means, though only a rudimentary one. I’m skeptical as my default position, probably because I’m skeptical of the idea of natural selection in the first place, at least as a way of creating new species, and the idea that more complexity arises by chance out of less complexity. However I try to stay openminded about things I don’t fully understand.

    It occurs to me that natural selection is supposed to be a mindless process. But when you’re talking about ideas, how can their evolution be mindless? Maybe what you mean is that there is not an overarching, conscious master plan that controls their evolution, even if conscious minds are involved in each step?

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