What is Religion?: Religion is a Type of Meaning-Meme

In my last post I talked about how it’s well known that religious-memes benefit both the individuals in the religion (whom we’re calling ‘memeoids’) as well as the society they are a part of.

I wish to take a bit of an aside this time and consider the question of why does religion benefit people?

One point already raised (by Dawkins no less) was that it helps people overcome fear of death. This is probably the most commonly cited reason given by atheists about “religious-memeoids.” I do not doubt there is truth to it in many cases. But it’s well known that this is neither the sole reason nor even always the reason at all.

Consider the fact that Buddhism is largely about how to stop being reborn and living again. That certainly doesn’t fit the atheist religion-is-to-overcome-fear-of-death model. So let’s dig a bit deeper here and see what we find.

What I want to suggest is that while afterlife is highly correlated with religion (probably for much of the reasons I discussed in the previous post) it is not the universal feature. So what is the universal feature of religion? I would propose that it’s this:

Religion is a means of finding meaning in one’s life.

Wait! I hear you protest. One can find meaning in one’s life without religion. True enough. But I am not suggesting that religion is the sole source of finding meaning in life, but rather religion is a particular sort of way to do so, one that happens to be particularly well adapted for the human nature and condition and is thus very effective.

In short, I want to suggest that there is such a thing as a “meaning-meme” that is to say, a cultural unit of transmission that replicates itself to help people find meaning in their life. And I want to suggest that “religious-memes” are a subset of “meaning-memes.”

The Value of Fecal Sculptures

Now people are all different, so you can probably find just about any sort of “meaning” you want out there. There is probably someone somewhere out there that finds meaning in their life through creating private fecal sculptures. And in so far as this works for them, who am I to argue?

But if this is truly just a purely private way of finding meaning, then by definition it’s not a meme because it does not replicate itself.

But what if that person decided he wanted to create fecal sculptures to teach people that fecal material can be beautiful and not shunned? So she takes her sculptures and tries to display them, tries to get people to see them as beautiful in the way she sees it as beautiful.

Now most likely she’ll find no adherents at all. So we’d say that her meme was woefully unsuccessful. But I think we could still call this a “meaning-meme.”

If we can call fecal sculptures a meaning-mean, what doesn’t qualify? A meaning-meme is thus anything that someone finds meaning in that also naturally tries to bring others into the fold, so to speak. The most obvious example of a non-religious meaning-meme is politics. But other examples might include nationalism, ethnic heritage, all morality based ideologies (this is almost what the word ‘ideology’ means by definition), the search for or spread of knowledge, desire to help people – perhaps often the medical profession, any sort of charity, etc. There are ‘meaning-memes’ all over the place and one of the most common and most effective just happens to be the subset called ‘religious-memes.’ Think of it this way: the meaning-meme is the family or phyla and the religious meme is the genus.

Do we find any sort of universal commonness amongst meaning-memes? Do we find some sort of thread that links them all together?

That’s a tougher question. Because of the extreme variety of human beings it seems unlikely any correlations we found would be completely universal. But I do see one trend amongst meaning-memes that can’t be missed:

The vast majority of meaning-memes are about making the world a better place.

Even our hypothetical fecal sculpture meme was about this to some degree. And the correct word for wanting to ‘make the world a better place’ is none other than ‘morality.’

So meaning-means are usually rooted in our sense of morality. Or, put another way, we find our meaning in life through our senses of morality. Even the meaning-memes we think of as immoral were based in someone’s skewed views of morality. Here I think of Communism or Nazism, both of which were moral ideologies gone awry. [1] Is it really that shocking that human beings find meaning in life through their sense of morality more than any other way?

The Revelatory (and Faith-Based) Nature of Morality

And that sense of morality is an interesting thing in and of itself that deserves a whole series of posts all its own. For one thing (as militant atheist Sam Harris is fond of pointing out) our brains do not distinguish between facts about the world and ‘facts’ about morality. Yet unlike, say, mathematics, there does not seem to be a purely rational way to justify morality. All attempts to describe it in such terms result in it seeming to vanish in our hands, making it difficult to justify our belief that ‘evil meaning-memes’ like Communism or even Nazism are rationally wrong and not just emotively wrong if you happen to not be an Communist or Nazi.

So this is where we find religion situated scientifically. It is actually a special type of very effective meaning-meme rooted in our sense of morality. But I would argue that its primary purpose is not to spread morality – there are numerous non-religious ways to do that – but to spread a sense of meaning in people’s lives through a certain explanation and narrative about morality.

Politics and Religion: Remember to Mix Them

But I am not even convinced that religion is the largest or most wide spread category of meaning-meme in existence. I actually think politics is the most widespread meaning-meme (though not necessarily the most effective.) Politics and religion share much in common. For example, both are rooted in our sense of morality and both are about hope of the triumph of morality at some future date.

Hawkgrrl once told me that she feels politics is a larger hot button for people than religion and that they get more irate and irrational over politics than they do over religion. I pointed out to her that this is because both are meaning-memes and that they represent the two most common ways human beings find meaning in their lives. That is why, at times, people become irrational with both.

It’s also why some people are willing to die for their politics or their religion. This is not difficult to understand at all; a life without meaning is a life not worth living. We’d rather lose our lives than the meaning in our lives.

God (and Nature) created conscious beings with a knowledge that we will some day die and (from a mortal perspective) cease to exist. If we had no reason or purpose to live, we’d live our lives with nothing but existential angst and would not choose to live long at all. So it is a great mercy that God (and Nature) endowed us with a moral sense and a purpose of life rooted in our meaning-memes that are built out of our moral sense.

Religion and Politics – A Short Comparison

If I might make two simple observations, politics is about hope of a better future through governmental systems. It is rooted in ‘human rights’ which is a type of morality. (And is just as difficult to rationally explain.) Politics is about the hope that our sense of morality can be utilized to create a better future through economic and government systems.

And as for Religion?

Religion is about the hope that Morality will utterly prevail above both the natural and intentional evils we see everywhere. Perhaps the two are not so different as they first appear. And it is not hard to see why the two often go hand in hand. Perhaps we need our faith in Morality’s ability to prevail if we are to have the faith necessary to create a better future through politics. Therefore, perhaps we are all religious in some legitimate sense since we all must, on faith alone, believe in the eventual triumph of morality.


[1] Actually, more like moral ideologies born awry.