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.

Now it’s fact of nature that not all genes compete. The collections of genes that make up fish probably do very little competition with the collection of genes that make up ants. On the other hand, the collection of genes that make up birds does do direct competition with certain types of genes that make up fish.

But Richard Dawkins points out that the single greatest source of competition amongst genes is actually between those that fill the exact same ecological niche – that is to say, those of the same species. In fact, the greatest competition of all between genes is actually between equivalent alleles. Its brown eyes and blue eyes that are the greatest of enemies.

Many interesting ideas fall out of this idea that genes are in competition with each other. The most important of wish is the concept of the Selfish Gene. According to this well established theory, it is not organisms, per se, that are in Darwinian conflict with each other. It’s actually the genes themselves. We macro organisms are actually just “gigantic lumbering robots” that contain a “swarm in huge colonies” of genes. The genes are our masters and we the slaves according to Dawkins. (The Selfish Gene, p. 19)

But, of course, this is just rhetoric. We can and do ‘rebel’ against our DNA masters on a regular basis. For example, we use birth control to enjoy sex without having children and we diet and refuse to give in to their mandate to eat high calorie sweets.

Still, Dawkins nailed this. To understand Darwinian evolution, one must look at survival and replication of genes, not organisms per se.

How does all this apply to religion?

Well, what is a religion but a cultural unit of replication (i.e. a meme) that wishes to replicate itself? And what are we then? We’re the means of the replication from one person’s head or heart to another’s.

And just like biological replication, religions fill various niches. Religious memes probably do not find themselves in much competition with some other memes. There is very little competition between, say, religion and chain letters. There might be a bit more competition between religion and secular learning, though still a lot less than people try to make it out to be. There is considerable competition between religious memes and other ideological (but often what we’d call “non-religious”) worldviews. And of course the competition between two specific religious memes is usually quite stiff.

Please understand that this is not mere analogy. Memes do not do something analogous to genes in that they compete via natural selection. Memes are literally subject to Darwinian evolution via natural selection just like genes are. Only the fittest survive. It should be clear that the ‘abolition of slavery’ meme won out in the Darwinian contest with the ‘slavery is right’ meme. Likewise the Nazism meme and Communist meme have or are losing the Darwinian struggle against the Democracy meme. By the same token, the Community of Christ meme has been far less successful against its most direct meme competitor, the LDS Church.

A Meme’s Organism?

What is the meme equivalent to an organism? This differs from meme to meme, of course. For secular learning, it’s a collection of schools and curriculum. For a chain letter it is words on a page promising spiritual or financial rewards. For many religions it’s a Church organization that gives life to proselyting programs or even simple things like “Family Home Evening” to replicate the meme to the next generation.

But not all religions utilize a Church organization, of course. Some religious memes rely more on practices, like say the spread of popularity of the benefits of meditation. Others rely more on spread through media preaching (televangelism perhaps?).

But there should be no doubt that all religions (unless we’re talking about a “religion of one”) are memes and that its adherents are memeoids in various degrees depending on their personal commitment to that religion.