What is Religion?: The Morality of Being a Memeoid

In my last post, I evaluated the consequences of the fact that religions are memes and that in reality the LDS meme has a specific way of replicating itself that can’t be exchanged for another way without likely killing the meme.

One thing that I did not consider was the morality of a meme “hijacking” (or so the militant atheist’s claim) someone’s life like this. This does seem to be one of the main objections to religious and hearing people on the Bloggernacle make some variant of this claim is a dime a dozen. But aren’t they sort of right? Isn’t it immoral for a religious-meme like this to take real individuals – real people with lives and loves of their own – and to turn them into memeoids like this?

This question becomes acutely intensified if we start with another assumption: that the meme-narrative in question is in fact not literally true. If we can allow ourselves to see religions as “memes” and adherents as nothing but “memeoids” who are doomed to spend their life replicating a false narrative, we start to see the world through the eyes of Richard Dawkins. With a bit more moralizing we can find thoughts like this:

  1. The “Church” doesn’t even tell the whole truth about the problems of its meme-narrative. How immoral!
  2. How dare they take advantage of people like this! We must liberate the slaves!
  3. What a travesty to have people have their lives ruined [say, being celibate all your life] all for a false religion!
  4. They believe that the commandments of their God are higher and more important than the law! They’re dangerous to be around!

Are these true? Well, one factor that would have to be considered is whether or not the meme-narrative in question is factually true or not. If it is true, then there isn’t much else to say or discuss. 

So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s the narrative in question is false.

Actually, this seems like an assumption we must make at some point. After all, when it comes to true religion, logically there can be at most one. So for every ‘true’ religion, all the rest must be (at least in some degree) false. So there might well be an open question here, even for a believer. And I think the open question is this: can religion be justified if its not entirely true or, worse, entirely false?

The (Scientific) Value of Religion

To seek an answer to this question, we now have to ask another question that Richard Dawkins touched upon: what exactly is the relationship between the meme and the memeoids? That is to say, does religion take advantage of its adherents or do the adherents actually benefit from the religion?

First, look back at the quote I gave from Richard Dawkins way back in an early post.

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. (The Selfish Gene, p. 193)

Dawkins, as we know, is so deeply biased and even prejudice against people of faith that its hard to take anything he says about people of faith seriously. We’ve seen his willingness to abandon the scientific method and correct epistemology to serve his prejudices here and elsewhere.

Yet we’ve also seen that he’s often right or at least on the right track. And here he is again. He’s putting it as negatively as possible, but the fact is that religion does (amongst many many other things) serve as a (psychologically) powerful way to overcome the difficulties of life. Even if we ascribe this only as the ‘placebo effect,’ as Dawkins does, this is nonetheless a real benefit and even miracle in someone’s life.

Let me put this another way: scientifically speaking, it is a fact that religious memes provide both benefit for the biological organisms (i.e .the people) that it utilizes to replicate itself and it’s a fact that it even provides survival value to them. Perhaps this is why religions have such deep biological roots within us. This is why atheism is so rare compared to religion. Religion has had real survival value and provides real benefits to people.

I found this interesting quote from FireTag recently that I think expresses the same point, if somewhat differently:

Communities form when, and only when, they provide something of value to the elements that compose them. It is only when the proto-community becomes very good at providing that value that an identity as a community emerges.

In other words, groups (and this includes religions) can only form in the first place if the members of the group benefit in some way. So much for Dawkin’s easy dismissal of religion. 

Even Dawkins Needs a “God”

This should not surprise the believers amongst us. If God utilized evolution to create us to any degree, the same could be said for utilizing it to encourage belief in Him. In future posts I’ll go further than this and argue that in a sense one can rightly say that there is no such thing as a psychologically healthy human being that does not have a faith-based (and thus in a sense a ‘religious’) meme to fall back on. Certainly we see that this is true for Dawkins himself. As we’ve already seen, the amount of faith in the moral correctness of his hatred (let’s call a spade a spade) of religions and religious people defies all reason. Yet is there any doubt that the narrative-meme that he’s going to “make the world a better place” by eradicating religious memes gives him real meaning in his life? Why else does he spend so much time on it and why does he so define himself by it?

And is this faith-based (certainly Dawkins views are not rationally based!) belief of his not a ‘religious meme’ of sorts all it’s own? (Complete with him as the memeoid even.)

Do not cry for the religious-memeoids until you are ready to cry for all ideological memeoids. To do so is to merely be inconsistent and intolerant. And do not cry for ideological memeoids because they are the lucky ones: they have something to live for.

Measurable Benefits of Religion

Now consider the following quotes that should give any atheist real pause:

..It is with a certain hesitation that [Professor] Peterson says, “I’m a card carrying liberal, but politically and religiously conservative people are much more generous. They are responsible for most of the charity in America. Not just money but even blood. Maybe the religious aspect makes them more optimistic and hopeful and not so cynical. (from Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life)

…surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. (link)

Even if we start with the assumption that God is naught, we cannot dismiss the real human need for religious meme-narratives. And once we realize they are memes, we cannot dismiss the reality of the need for them to be taken literally and not just metaphorically if they are to replicate. [1] As Updike puts it,

We cannot pray to or believe in a God whom we recognize as a figment of our imaginations. (The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, p. 204)

Of course the values of the religious-meme to the individuals comes in many forms. I do not doubt that one of these values is a great way to wrap up morality for the masses. On the other hand, I have grave doubts that religious-memes would exist at all if this was the sole or even most important part of religious memes. Morality does not need religion because morality is itself an evolutionary and biologically rooted belief meme that often exists independent of religious-memes. (i.e. Atheists are good people too.)

In fact, consider this argument made by the famous skeptic – but full blooded theist – Martin Gardner:

Everyone, said Kant, has a sense of duty, a conscience (Freud’s superego). It tells us there is a difference between right and wrong, that it is our duty to be good as we can and thereby promote the summum bonum, the highest good for humanity. This “moral law” with us is so powerful and awesome, as awesome as the spectacle of the starry heaven, that we cannot escape believing that the highest good will someday be realized. (The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, p. 215)

Gardner goes on, following Kant, to point out that this hope of triumph of moral law is just as much seemingly contradicted by the facts of reality as is the existence of God. Indeed, to really believe in the triumph of moral law one must ultimately:

…take seriously our hope that justice will be done with respect to our lives, [so] we must posit an afterlife. And if there is an afterlife there must be a God who is good enough and powerful enough to provide it. … if we want to make our beliefs consistent with the demands of our moral nature, we must posit God and immorality. And if we have faith, we do more than recognize them as posits. We also believe them to be true. (The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, p. 215)

If Garnder is right, then the old adage that morality comes from religion has mixed up the cause and effect. It’s actually religion that comes from morality rather than the other way around!

Our sense of morality leads us to believe that the world is not as it appears to be: that there is some sort of factually based order that exists despite all the evidence to the contrary. Therefore, our sense of morality primes us to believe that justice will prevail despite all the evidence to the contrary. The end result of this line of logic is always belief in an afterlife and thus in some sort of “God.”

Religious vs. Spiritual

But what about the ‘religious’ vs. ‘spiritual’ debate?

I also do not doubt that one can be spiritual without being religious. In other words, I believe one can feel a literal connection to a higher power without being one whit involved with the replication of a religious narrative-meme. But such ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ people are tautologically also not part of a meme because, if they were, then there would be something identifiable as ‘religion’ in their life after all. It is no wonder that overwhelmingly ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ people had to find their spirituality through a religion first. It’s like trying to imagine a mule without their first having been a donkey and a horse. For better or worse, if you believe in the value of human spirituality, then you should be careful to not knock the value of the memes that replicate it to human societies.

And while we are at it, we should consider another point. It is possible to duplicate some of the values of human religion without belief in a higher power. Is there any doubt that part of the value of religion is being a part of a community? Well go join a civic club! Is there any doubt that part of the value of religion is that it teaches people how to be spiritual? Well, go be spiritual. You wish to enhance yourself through religious practice but not belief? Then go practice.

But spiritual but not religious people do not have communities. And civic clubs do not have spirituality. And practicing-but-not-believing people have both, but they have not the same literal hope that allowed the community to cohere in the first place and (more importantly!) still allows that community to exist.

Religion is a thing all its own that is irreplaceable and, as we saw from the quotes above, is a part of human society that even atheists would bemoan if lost. (Even if they are too prejudice to realize this.) [2]


[1] Some of you will notice that this is a topic already discussed in a previous post. I believe non-literal Theists are in a world where they see the value of religion and also the value of truth, and they don’t know how to reconcile those two so they affirm both. In actuality, I think the non-literal theists are right about one thing: there is nothing at all logically inconsistent about something like religion being ‘better than true.’ Therefore, I can see non-literal theism as possibly being a logically self consistent worldview (at least for some of them). But most of the time, this admission is just too much for people. It’s what we might call an ‘unspeakable.’ You just don’t say things like “religion is better than true” in polite company. Everyone will hate you.

[2] I can appreciate Martin Gardner’s Fideist stance on Theism:

[paraphrasing Unamumo] …for all those who do not want to die, who do not want those whom they love to die, God is a necessary posit to escape from unbearable anguish. It is easy to say with the head that God does not exist, but to say it with the heart? “Not to believe that there is a God or to believe that there is not a God,” wrote Unamuno, “is one thing; to resign oneself to there not being a God is another thing, and it is a terrible and inhuman thing; but not to wish that there be a God exceeds every other moral monstrosity…” (The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, p. 217)

…but belief in God can carry with it a certitude, springing from the heart, that is stronger than any belief about the world. It is easier for me to believe that any fact or law of science is no more than a momentary illusion, produced by the Great Magician and subject to change whenever that Great Magician decides to modify his Act, than to believe that the Great Magician does not exist. But this certainty is not knowledge of the kind we have in mathematics or science. It is trivially true that we believe what we know, or think we know. To believe what we do not know, that we hope for but cannot see – this is the very essence of faith. (The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, p. 222)

I am quite content to confess with Unamuno that I have no basis whatever for my belief in God other than a passionate longing that God exists and that I and others will not cease to exist. Because I believe with my heart that God upholds all things, it follows that I believe that my leap of faith, in a way beyond my comprehension, is God outside of me asking and wanting me to believe, and God within me responding. (The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, p. 222.)


2 thoughts on “What is Religion?: The Morality of Being a Memeoid

  1. Bruce, I really enjoyed this post. As we see from the Hitchens attack on Mormonism, the most hateful atheists abandon all reason and pursuit of truth when attacking others’ religions. They seem to get caught in a weird Satanic crazy world where it is morally OK to say and write absolutely anything as long as it “injures” the target. The writings of Dawkins and Hitchens provide us a view of the weird thought processes of the people who attacked the Savior and Joseph Smith: saying and doing just about anything are justified.

    When I was an agnostic, I never found such attacks persuasive. I always could see them for the mean-spirited nihilism they were. I was much more likely to accept more mild “Mormons are weird extremists but well-intentioned” arguments than the wild-eyed negativity displayed by Dawkins and Hitchens. So, I must ask myself: to whom are they appealing with these over-the-top books and articles?

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