Catching The Religious Cold

I am not particularly enthusiastic about meme theory, at any rate when it becomes a monovariable explanation. Religion is certainly something done to most of us, but that is not the same as it being done to all of us; the danger of meme theory is that it may get the profiteers from religion off the hook. But I suppose I need to cover the base, so here goes.

Richard Dawkins has popularised the concept of the “meme”, a cultural equivalent to the gene; the meme is said to be a sound-bite, story, melody, idea, or any other cultural artefact, that, once created, passes from one carrier to another by imitation. The easiest example to understand is the “earworm”, that tune you can’t get out of your head, and with which you can infect others by humming it to them. This shows that memes are not always convenient for their human hosts, any more than viruses and parasites are, and for the same reason: we are a means to their reproductive ends.

A problem that is shared by both genetic and memetic theories is that attempts to explain them may sound as if the gene or meme is “wanting” or “trying” to do things. This is nonsense as it stands, of course, since only sentient creatures can want or try, and no one is pretending that genes and memes are sentient. But it is useful shorthand. A plant does not “want” its fruit to be eaten by birds, but a plant whose fruit is so eaten will reproduce better than a plant that bears other fruit, and so the kind of fruit that is attractive to birds will come to outnumber the kind of fruit that is not. Water is not sentient either, but it still “exploits” cracks and crannies. Similarly, if a story makes us enjoy it, remember it, and relate it to others, it has a competitive edge relative to other stories. Like the computer virus that mails itself to everyone we know, the meme uses us as its reproductive vector. We are information-processing devices, and that some information interacts with us in such a way as to result in its preferential replication. As the website has demonstrated, the best urban legends appeal to our hopes and our fears, to our sense of humour or our malice. There is thus an evolutionary competition, as slightly different variants of the same urban legend spread at different rates according to how well they appeal to their hosts; that is, how well they tell us what we want to believe. The bottom line is that in meme theory the meme spreads, not because anyone intends the good or bad effects, but because the inherent properties of the meme so pirate human cognitive architecture as to induce us to spread it.

Some people have described religion in terms of viral memes, or parasitic memes. Given that religious ideas can spread like wildfire, not always with demonstrable benefit to their holders, a model that treats such ideas not as something that people do but as something that happens to people has obvious advantages. There are grave problems with meme theory as a scientific explanation, but anyone who has undergone a conversion experience, only to see through it all later, may agree that it does in fact feel like a violent fever. When you are sick, you can hardly imagine or even remember what it is like to be well, and when you are well again you can hardly recall what it was like to be sick; the same thing applies to any obsession, whether religious or erotic.

Even if it is rejected as an explanatory paradigm of what a religion is, meme theory may nevertheless serve to remind us that the particular doctrines of a particular religion “evolve” by a process resembling natural selection. If Doctrine A appeals to more punters than Doctrine B, then it may have more people available to spread it; if it encounters resistance, it may take different forms until one succeeds. A religion in its early days may be like a password-sniffer that whirls through the combinations until it finds the one that picks the lock of the human mind. Pace the likes of Dan Brown, the rejected versions were not suppressed because they were true and better, but because they didn’t work.

Posted on April 24, 2009 at 11:48 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, Religion As Design Fault

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on April 27, 2009 at 20:44

    “A religion in its early days may be like a password-sniffer that whirls through the combinations until it finds the one that picks the lock of the human mind. Pace the likes of Dan Brown, the rejected versions were not suppressed because they were true and better, but because they didn’t work.”


    One reason why Gnosticisms and some other forms of early Christianity such as Marcionism didn’t work is that they had jettisoned Judaism. It seems odd to us, obsessed as we are with novelty and innovation, but in the Mediterranean world in which Christianity evolved, anything new was suspect. It hadn’t been tested.

    The Romans may have thought Judaism absurd, but they respected its antiquity. And in the vibrant marketplace of ideas that flourished in that tolerant culture there were many religions clamoring for attention, most claiming hoary age. The cult of Isis had little to do with Egyptian religion, but it claimed a connection to something ancient in order to successfully market itself. Devotees of Atargatis claimed that their religion predated the deluge which, indeed, had gushed forth from a crevice in her temple. The list could go on and on. By repudiating any connection to Judaism, Gnosticism sealed its doom.

    Extreme asceticism is already a tough sell; most people do prefer generous dollops of pleasure in their lives. And as if that weren’t bad enough the whole thing was based on some wacky myths that had only been around less than a century. They didn’t have a chance. It was bad marketing strategy, not suppression of the truth by an evil cabal, that eliminated them from the meme pool.

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