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? 

Faith cannot move mountains…. But it is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness. It leads people to believe in whatever it is so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and to die for it without the need for further justification. Keith Henson has coined the name ‘memeoids’ for victims that have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential… You see lots of these people on the evening news from such places as Belfast or Beirut.’ Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings. It even immunizes them against fear, if they honest believe that a martyr’s death will send them straight to heaven. What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb. (The Selfish Gene, p. 330)

 As Theists we are uncomfortable with how one-sided, and thus unfair and intolerant, Dawkins is here. But I also hope you’ll see that he’s correct in every detail and that he’s onto something quite profound.

The simple truth is that he’s right – religions are indeed memes! This is a very useful way to look at religions.

The main complaint I hear about these words from Dawkins is that he concentrates solely on the extremes of religion — here specifically Islamic fundamentalism — while ignoring all the good it does in the world. This is, of course, a correct complaint. But I don’t think it’s the biggest problem with Dawkins’ assessment. I think the real problem with Dawkins words is that he’s merely putting it in a negative way that which can also be quite positive.

Consider that Gandhi and Martin Luther King both also fit the given definition of ‘memeoid’ because both of them could be accurately viewed as ‘[people] that have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential.’ Indeed, this is literally true of anyone worth looking up to. It’s virtually the definition of Hero. ‘Hero’ implies ‘memeoid.’

So what’s the difference between Gandhi and an Islamic suicide bomber? Well, obviously one thing is that one was a pacifist that gave up only his own life and the suicide bomber included others in their willingness to die. But I’m uncomfortable saying that this is the dividing line between hero and villain memeoids. Could we not say that a virtuous war hero like George Washington was also a memeoid wiling (but was not required to) give up his life for his beliefs – that is to say, for a meme? And was George Washington a pacifist that killed no one else?

Now obviously there are also differences between George Washington and a suicide bomber. For example one followed the rules of war as much as was possible, including not killing civilians (which isn’t hard when you’re being invaded by a foreign power) and the suicide bombers do not. But perhaps we should admit that even this line is fuzzier than it first appears. Killing innocent civilians is, after all, an unavoidable part of war. If your family dies, you don’t really care if the reason was because they had been targeted by the Unabomber or because the US military killed them as collateral damage trying to get Bin Laden. And is there really some sort of easy technical difference between “solider” and “terrorists” other than whether or not the ‘group’ you ‘fight for’ is officially accepted as a country by their enemy?

I do not wish to suggest that somehow Islamic suicide bombers are equivalent to George Washington. On the contrary, my point is merely that if you seek a definitive logical definition that is air tight, it’s not an easily defined line at times. Yet despite this ‘technical difficulty’, we generally have no problem at all determining a hero memeoid from a villain memeoid without having to resort to such technical definitions. Why?

Morality and Memes

We seem to be able to assess such things very quickly based on our moral intuitions, of course. We do not sit down and look up technical definitions and draw lines in the sand using those. Does this not suggest that at least part of our judgment of whether or memeoid is a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain’ is based on assessment of whether or not we morally agree with the meme they are willing to die for?

In any case, merely calling someone a ridiculous name like ‘memeoid’ isn’t enough. We do not universally look down upon a person for being willing to die for an ideological meme, especially if we agree with the moral worldview of that meme. Is this not why to other Islamic fundamentalists a suicide bomber is a hero and George Washington or Gandhi might be perceived as the villain?

And Dawkins is dead on right that ‘memeoids’ are the great ‘weapon’ humankind has ever seen. But again, whether or not this is bad or good depends on whether or not you agree with the morality of the meme in question. Dawkins could just have easily have said that courage and heroism for one’s ideals “deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology.” Is there any doubt this is true also?

So let’s call a spade a spade. Dawkins uses the word ‘memeoid’ and positions it to sound scary because of his own bigotry against religion. The real truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong or scary about becoming a memeoid. Most of us wish that, if the situation arose, that we’d have the courage and moral fortitude to have live and die for our beliefs – that is to say, for our ideological morality memes.

Religion and Suicide Bombings

Another point that Dawkins doesn’t consider is that the majority of suicide bombers have been secular atheists. Professor Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: the The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism has spent his career collecting all instances of suicide killings back to 1980 and then statistically correlating it. To most people’s surprise, the majority of suicide bombing was done by secular atheists. 

Now if we were to fall into the same sort of bigotry Richard Dawkins falls into, we might add up the number of atheist suicide bombers in history and divide it by the number of atheists that have lived since 1980 and then do the same thing with believers. Because there have been far fewer atheists in the world than believers, the case looks grim for atheism and probably by an order of magnitude or more. Perhaps it’s actually atheism that causes suicide bombers, right?

But Pape actually found that the real correlation between ideology memes and suicide bombers wasn’t religious views at all but, as Wikipedia quotes him “to compel democracies to withdraw military forces from the terrorists’ national homeland.” In fact, Pape found that suicide terrorism’s main personal motivation is actually personal altruism – a willingness to give up their life to exert pressure on the foreign occupiers of their homeland. If we were to assess what type of ‘ideological meme’ they were willing to die for, it would be simple ‘nationalism’ rather than religion. [1] 

So what are the key points so far?

  1. Religions are memes and believers willing to die for their religion are indeed memeoids, just like Dawkins claims.
  2. But this is also true for all ideological worldviews, not just religious ones.
  3. And it is not necessarily evil or bad. If it’s an ideological worldview that we consider to be moral (and the means used we consider to be moral) we would call such a memeoid a hero, not a villain.


[1] Of course this is just one study and the results will be debated and reconsidered for years to come. But the fact that the worldwide expert in suicide bombings has found that most suicide bombers were atheists and secularists and that most were connected to nationalism rather than religion should give us serious pause when we make up narrative fallacies in our minds as to what sort of ‘memeoid’ would become a suicide bomber. And judge for yourself if Richard Dawkins used correct scientific judgments here or if he abandoned science when his personal prejudices against religion came into play.

26 thoughts on “What is Religion?: Are Religions Memes?

  1. I guess everything you say is plausible given your assumption that memes and memeoids are some kind of scientific concept. But I see no reason to believe this. Anything Dawkins has ever said on the subject of religion has parted ways with rigor and accuracy.

    Absent the neologisms and the spurious analogy to genes (which are themselves not so easy to define or compartmentalize as previously thought), what it boils down to is this:

    Dawkins points out in shocked tones that religious people have beliefs, try to share those beliefs, and in extreme cases are willing to die rather than renounce them.

    Your retort is that this is also true of non-religious people.

  2. I think it’s very useful to think of religions – and most ideas really – as memes, though I don’t think that’s the only model that is useful. We could even look at scriptural stores through memetics. Think about the calling of Enoch starting in Moses 6: God saw that the world had turned the wrong way, and commissioned Enoch to start the seeds of a new “God meme.” It’s not a perfect model but it’s useful and enlightening, I think.

    Also, I’d also like to point out that sometimes scientists purport to discover the mechanism behind this or that belief or practice and suddenly they think that this somehow proves the belief to be false. I discussed this phenomenon in the new blog I just started. We can discover mechanisms – or organic precursors – behind belief, but beliefs cannot be reduced to those mechanisms. With this in mind I think we’re free to pursue the model of religion as a set of memes freely.

  3. Syphax,
    calling beliefs memes in that story of Enoch doesn’t really add anything, imho. You’ve basically just restated the scriptural account, replacing belief with an ill-defined neologism.

  4. Like I said, it’s not perfect, but I think when “meme” is used it places the emphasis on whether and why a certain belief is successful in society, whether it satisfies people’s psychological needs, and therefore why it spreads. Memes that are not pragmatically useful don’t spread. In the case of Enoch we should wonder why he had the success spreading the Gospel that he did – especially with his city. It was the right message at the right time for a certain right group of people. We could view it in terms of memetics by saying that Enoch’s message had pragmatic value to those who were touched by it, and that’s why it was a successful message. We should expect a true message from God to have pragmatic psychological value, right?

    I agree that “meme” is ill-defined and can’t be put under a microscope, but I see no reason why we can’t discuss whether ideas are transmitted because they have pragmatic value in a community. Though personally I’d rather focus on the individual.

  5. I’ve come to realize that the idea of a meme is entirely confused.

    1) It’s an attempt to apply Darwin’s idea to a social setting that doesn’t realize that Darwin got his idea from a social setting in the form of economics. Memetics doesn’t take Darwin’s idea to the social setting, but Mendel’s idea.

    2) If we treat beliefs as tools then we can still use Darwinian and economic reasoning… but this doesn’t seem to provide the free reign on religion that Dawkin’s is looking for like memes do.

    3) If memes are viruses of the mind, then, like the vast majority of viruses with which we are bombarded every day, the vast majority will not be harmful. This also works against any open season that might be declared on religion.

  6. The funny thing about atheists is that they don’t believe in God, yet the light of God shines through them.

    We live in a world of memes, with different groups pimping their pet meme. Religions could be considered memes, but the LDS religion is slightly different. People tend to leave, find God on their own terms, and return. There are variations on this. Some people coast for a while instead of leaving, and some don’t return even if their testimony comes back.

    So, I’m not sure DNA replication is like the “LDS meme”. You don’t reject DNA and then prove it and accept it on its merits. Dawkins’ theory works pretty well if you think of people as closed-minded boobs. But then, he should look in the mirror.

  7. I think that is exactly why I DON’T like the word “meme.” I don’t think ideas necessarily replicate based on “pragmatic psychological value” in any meaningful sense.

    In order to make religion fit the meme definition, you have to stretch it beyond usefulness. For example, what, exactly, was the “pragmatic psychological value” in being an early Christian?

  8. Well, early Christianity was all about empowering the poor and oppressed. Jesus’ message resonated with people because he pointed out the hypocrisy of the religious elite that were basically leeching off society. He liberated the downtrodden by telling them that there is another kingdom – not the kingdom of Israel that had turned away from God and kept the poor oppressed, neither was it a kingdom like the Roman Empire that conquered and taxed and took away the Jewish power to self-govern – but a kingdom within you; the kingdom of God. Instead of giving in to the pressure of those earthly kingdoms, Jesus allowed himself to be executed. But lo and behold, he was resurrected, showing that no earthly kingdom had power over him at all. That’s a very powerful message to an underclass that felt that they had no power and no hope of ever freeing themselves, and that message has not lost its potency today (which is why “prosperity gospels” are ironic to me).

  9. And yet many of the early Christians were far from underclass, and it wasn’t until it broke out of the underclass that Christianity really got going. In the lifetimes of those who were Christ’s contemporaries, Christianity attracted MORE persecution, greater danger than before.

    And besides, He didn’t “empower the underclass” in any pragmatic way. He taught them to submit to their oppressors.

    So I’m still unconvinced. If anything, this proves that the definition of pragmatic psychological value can be stretched beyond any real meaning, which undercuts the purpose of calling a religion a meme to begin with.

  10. Adam,

    I think the strongest argument against what I am saying is the argument you are making. As of yet, the ‘memetics’ concept hasn’t really grown into a mathematically based and matured science. Therefore there is a legitimate concern that it won’t.

    However, keep in mind that Darwin’s original ideas were at about the same level memes are today. All sciences start here.

    I give it as my opinion that memes are going to turn out to be a deep and profound science on par with epistemology and evolution. But it will take a great deal more rigor. And it’s difficult for us, right now, to see how it will ultimately work out. After all, DNA is a very specific physical form of information transmission. It’s unlikely cultural units of transmission will have a physical equivalent that is so easily identifiable prior to us reverse engineering the brain or something like that. So memes are a very primative concept.

    However, I hope to show, through out my posts, that the idea of memes *does* allow us to make testable hypothesis. Though I have not the ability to test mine, I suspect that what I’m going to suggest could be tested with current levels of technology. (Probably through social science studies or the like.)

    In any case, let me at least acknowledge your point here and say “I could be wrong.”

  11. SilverRain,

    I confess I sort of agree with you even though you are saying the essentially opposite of me. The truth is that if memes are in fact a real concept (and I personally believe they are) then religions are memes.

    I think any time you start to ‘explain’ something it takes away some of the mystery. I fear doing this to religion. But, in truth, I don’t think there is a real concern here ultimately or I wouldn’t be doing this post. I decided that any negative of demystifying the spread of religion is out weighed by the possible benefits of understanding how religions can and must interact with each other and with other ideologies.

    Maybe I’m a romantic, but I believe this concept could eventually lead to understanding a more tolerant way for all of us to interact with each other. That is my hope, anyhow.

    But again… I could be wrong. This is just a hypothesis right now and frankly I’m not even entirely convinced of my own ideas.

  12. “I don’t think ideas necessarily replicate based on “pragmatic psychological value” in any meaningful sense.”

    Actually, this is Dawkins idea, not mine. And he is sooooo prejudice against religion that he can’t see straight. The idea that a meme could replicate *solely* based on ‘pragmatic psychology value” seems rather rediculous to me too.

  13. I would say the vast majority of Christ’s followers, at first, were underclass, at least until the 3rd to 4th Centuries. Certainly the apostles. And even if Christianity attracted persecution, if people are satisfied psychologically then they would submit themselves quite willingly to any kind of persecution (Frankl said if people have meaning behind their suffering, they can suffer through anything). If people are willing to die for something, it obviously satisfies something within them – something that they value far more than even their own lives. How is that not psychological value?

    Christ taught people to submit to their oppressors because they had the kingdom of heaven within them. Just like the Buddha said that in order to release ourselves from suffering, we should lose our attachment to the material world. In both cases the religious leader replaces attachment to the material world with something far more fulfilling.

    I think you’re misunderstanding the term “pragmatic psychological value.” I use it in the way that William James used it (see The Varieties of Religious Experience, or this Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James#Epistemology). If a religious system inspires, uplifts, gives hope, etc., then that is pragmatic psychological value. If I’m using it in a different way than you, then that’s not “stretching it beyond any real meaning,” it’s simply using a completely different definition.

    In any case, if people aren’t satisfied in any way psychologically by religion then I’m screwed, since I’m getting a graduate degree in that very subject.

  14. Syphax,

    It looks like a confused “great psychological appeal” in Dawkins with your statement of “pragmatic psychological value.”

    My apologies.

    With your further explanation, I do see your point now. I can see how ‘pragmatic psychological value’ could (and in the case of religion, will) play at least some (often significant) role in any ideological meme.

  15. There really isn’t much of a difference between “psychological appeal” and “pragmatic psychological value” except for the attitude/assumptions of the person saying it. Dawkins is prejudiced against religion, so to him “psychological appeal” somehow equates to wishful thinking, or false hopes. A psychologist of religion (and William James) would point out that everything we believe – atheism, religion, Conservatism, Liberalism, the belief that humans have value, the belief that the external world is real – has psychological value. For instance, the belief that the external world is real. Don’t we have a psychological stake in that matter? This is what I was trying to argue in my essay that I linked above, Evolutionary Psychology and the Genetic Fallacy. Just pointing out that we might have strong psychological reasons to believe something and pass it on to other people doesn’t mean our beliefs can be reduced to those reasons nor does it prove them false (or true).

  16. Let me rephrase. While I can concede that there are some levels on which a person might be psychologically satisfied by religion, I don’t see how it would be enough to create a positive genetic-like pressure to continue religion on an individual level. I just can’t understand why defining religion that way would matter, unless it is a construct by which to minimize the reality of religion and/or conviction. It’s like saying that we eat because it tastes good, so therefore the reason people eat is to create a positive tasting experience.

    Basically, it boils down to “the reason people make decisions is because they see something good in that decision that trumps all the goods in other decisions.” While true in a sense, it’s not particularly useful. Stating that has no meaning.

    You can bend the definition of meme until it applies to religions, but when you do so, you bend it beyond the purpose and meaning of the term “meme.”

    “Meme” has purpose when applied to an individual idea, analogous to “gene.” But when applied to an entire group of ideas, its use breaks down for the same reason that you would not apply the word “gene” to the entire DNA strand.

    My issue with the phrase was with “pragmatic.” There is very little psychologically pragmatic, and by that I mean practical, about religion in my experience. Religion leads to a great deal of psychological stress, problems, and dissatisfaction. Nothing seems to suggest a positive genetic-like pressure to spread the idea. And saying that there MUST be something satisfying about religion or it wouldn’t replicate, so therefore it replicates based on satisfaction is a logical fallacy.

    And if you want to push the genetics analogy, the same thing is true with DNA. It holds loads of useless, meaningless information, artifacts from previous times, mutations that didn’t matter to the final organism, genes which don’t get properly replicated or passed down to inheritors, areas which have the sole purpose of being a landing place for decoding and replicating proteins. THAT is much more analogous to a religion than genes/memes. Trying to apply theories of genetic inheritance to the entire DNA strand has some VERY limited merit, but is largely meaningless, because so much of the DNA strand isn’t strictly inherited.

  17. Again, I’m using “pragmatic” in the philosophical sense, not as a synonym with “practical.” I also don’t mean “satisfying” as a synonym with “wholesome” or “good” necessarily, but that it satisfies a need. And your point seems to be that we should treat individual ideas or memes as far more granular, and not view an entire religion as a meme. On this point I agree.

    “I just can’t understand why defining religion that way would matter, unless it is a construct by which to minimize the reality of religion and/or conviction.”

    And this is something I don’t quite understand. To me, viewing religions this wax MAXIMIZES the reality of religion and convictions. If religion doesn’t actually DO anything, then what’s the point?

  18. “Memes that are not pragmatically useful don’t spread.”

    Calling beliefs ‘memes’ does nothing to make this idea more or less true.

    I believe that it is not true. Pragmatism plays some role in belief, but a phenomenology of why people believe what they believe will reveal that practical utility does not play the dominant role. Certainly one can point to a number of beliefs that appear to be not so useful but still common. To get around this, you end up having to define ‘utility’ in such broad terms that it becomes meaningless, just like those people who claim that everyone is always motivated by self-interest, but define self-interest to include altruism. Utility is an account of how best to maximize your ends, but religion is an account of what your ends should be.

  19. I would say the vast majority of Christ’s followers, at first, were underclass, at least until the 3rd to 4th Centuries. Certainly the apostles.

    The great majority of everyone was underclass in the 3rd and 4th centuries, so I’m not sure that this means much of anything. Stark says that early Christianity wasn’t disproportionately underclass, that Christianity was attracting middle and upper class individuals quite early and that conversion was often by households–wealthy persons, their retainers, their servants, their slaves. Peter, et al, may well have been middle class in our terms (small businessmen), while early converts Joseph of Arimathea and the centurion were high-status individuals. On the whole its probably impossible for us to accurately reconstruct with any precision the socio-economic backgrounds of early converts to Christ.

    I don’t deny that there can be a heavy sociological/reductionist psychological component in conversion. I do deny that it is the only or the paramount component. I deny that calling beliefs ‘memes’ adds anything to the debate.

  20. ““Meme” has purpose when applied to an individual idea, analogous to “gene.””

    If you must analogize beliefs to biological evolution, ideas are more equivalent of traits. Genes are (one of) the physical mechanisms by which traits descend. Genes have no analogy in the transmission of ideas.

  21. “Let me rephrase. While I can concede that there are some levels on which a person might be psychologically satisfied by religion, I don’t see how it would be enough to create a positive genetic-like pressure to continue religion on an individual level.”

    Technically, if we are talking ‘benefit’ in a biological evolutionary sense, the only type of ‘benefit’ that matters is reproduction.

    However, it just stands to reason that much that benefits a gene will also benefit an organism. But this is NOT always the case.

    Memes should follow the same rules. But since they do not control reproduction of organisms, they must control whatever actions or practices that cause them to replicate instead.

  22. “I deny that calling beliefs ‘memes’ adds anything to the debate.”

    Actually, memes aren’t beliefs per se. Beliefs may be memes, but memes aren’t always beliefs.

  23. Um… actually, even that is not true. Many beliefs are personal and thus not memes at all. (Because they don’t replicate.)

  24. Explain. So a meme is, what, a belief that someone tries to get someone else to believe? What does ‘replicate’ actually mean in this context? What difference would there be between an unsuccessful meme and a belief. What would be a meme that isn’t a belief?

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