Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Memetics of Religion: Fundamentalism as a Parasitic Adaptation

Recently on Google+, I posted some Bible quotes with the caption, “Jesus, on Family Values”:
“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” — Luke 14:26

“And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”— Matthew 19:29

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” — Matthew 10: 34 – 37"

One of the replies I got was:
"You can't even read these passages allegorically. How can these believers BS themselves into believing this crap?"

As I was replying, it got longer and longer, so I turned it into this essay.  While I was quoting from Christianity in my original post, I think that it applies to all religions.

I think part of the problem is that most don't believe this crap.  What we have are a bunch of different memes contending with each other for replication opportunities.

The first meme of importance is the moral meme.  The bearers of this meme are primarily focused on living a moral life according to standards that are designed to maximize well-being, treating others with kindness and charity, avoiding conflict, enjoying family time, etc.  We can shorthand this group of behaviors as “being moral”.  All of these behaviors have sound evolutionary reasons for existing, and many of the predecessors are readily observed in our fellow primates.  But the moral meme doesn’t usually exist on its own, it often combines with a doctrinal memeplex (large collection of memes) called religion.

The first branch retains much of the motivation of the ethical meme itself, and only partially adopts the religious memeplex.  These meme-bearers have vague notions of the myths and stories of their doctrine, but they haven't bothered to sit down and actually examine the doctrines that they purportedly believe in.  Being moral, from an outside observer's perspective, is what they actually care about and how they define themselves.  The problem is that even though it's apparent that their real focus is on being moral, they call that "being religious", and due to various other factors involved in the structure of the religion memeplex itself, they get "being moral" and "being religious" tied up in their heads so much that the two terms become inextricably intertwined.  For the purposes of this essay, we'll call this type of confusion the moderate meme.

Then we have the second group.  These meme-bearers aren't dedicated to “being moral”, they are actually dedicated to accepting the content of their doctrine as "truth".  That is how they define themselves.  This “truth” includes the actual moral content of the doctrine, the bits of the doctrine that correspond to a maximization of well-being, but also the assertions about how the universe functions, the petty prejudices of ages past (misogyny, racism, bigotry towards the sexually adventurous), as well as the literature content, et al.  This tendency to accept doctrine as “truth” we can shorthand as "being religious".  They also conflate "being moral" and "being religious", but for them, the prime concern is the acceptance, not the maximization of well-being.  We can call this type of confusion the fundamentalist meme.  

So we have two groups of meme-bearers, moderates and fundamentalists, both running around calling their memes by the same terms.  Worse, both the moderates and the fundamentalists consider that “being religious” and “being moral” define who they are as people, and they use both terms interchangeably and to refer to different behaviors.  But because they are using the same terms, they fool themselves into thinking that they are both working towards the same goals, and there ends up being memetic drift between the two groups.  The moderates, who are generally decent people, end up picking up on some of the doctrinal memes (the assertions about reality and petty prejudices) of the fundamentalists and feel obligated to believe in them too, because subscription to doctrine is a part of their "being religious" meme, even though it has a lower priority to them than "being moral".  You also get some fundamentalists with a certain amount of tendency towards maximizing well-being, because being moral in actuality is also part of the doctrine, even though it’s of lower priority.  Both of these crossover situations can cause cognitive dissonance when the underlying conflicts are pointed out.  As a defense against dissonance, there is often a strong reaction in the meme-bearer of either sort against processes that draw attention to the dissonance, like critical thinking procedures or investigative methodologies like scientific empiricism or historical analysis.

Scientific empiricism and historical analysis are memes too, of course, but the difference is that they are investigative memes, not religious memes.  Religious memes are about certainty, about knowing “truth”, whether it’s a moral truth or a truth about the way the universe is put together.  Investigative memes are about discovery.  Some of the products of those discoveries can be elevated to truths, and even turned into doctrines for religions (especially in the past), but the emphasis in the meme-bearer is on discovery, not truth, so as long as they can keep discovering, they don’t mind overturning yesterday’s truths, as long as the new discovery can do so via application of strict standards.  These meme-bearers define themselves as investigators, not as truth-possessors.  The source of conflict between the different classes of meme-bearers becomes obvious once one identifies the identity issues at stake.  The religious meme-bearers have their identities locked into a static “truth” position, and the investigation meme-bearers have their identities locked into a process of challenging static “truths”.

Keep in mind, this isn’t actual different tribes of people who possess only one meme or the other.  These memes are in everyone’s minds, influencing our behavior.  What does seem likely is that in any given person, certain memes are going to be more dominant in influence at any given time.  People in the real world are going to have multiple points of commitment to these memes and others with varying levels of intensity.  I’m necessarily simplifying to be illustrative.

Fundamentalist memes arise, I suspect, when investigative memes and moral memes combine and replicate.  The religions that exist in the world today seem to be a result of this type of interaction.  Investigative meme-bearers are today constantly producing models of the world which are then picked up and adopted as doctrines.  In the past when technology memes hadn’t progressed to the current level that they exist at today, it took a long time for investigative meme-bearers to produce new models.  This exerted a selection pressure that naturally favored fundamentalist memes, as the models had a seeming eternal “truth” aspect, since most meme-bearers of any type didn’t get the opportunity to observe the emergence of a new model.  Potential moderate meme-bearers would be fairly invisible in the general population, since there was no pressure to differentiate from fundamentalist meme-bearers.  So for centuries, fundamentalism was a decent survival strategy, as it could parasitize the investigative memes, and change happened slowly enough that fundamentalism, which is highly resistant to change, could adapt when necessary.

This all changed with the acceleration of technological know-how, and the gradual process of improvement and refinement that the investigative meme-bearers were always pursuing.  Even the old obsolete models were useful data, because it gave them a base to build on and improve.  As time goes by, new discoveries are made, and old discoveries that proved valid end up stronger.  So the foundations get more and more certain (although never 100%), and provide a wider and wider base to use as a launchpad for new discoveries.  The more time goes by, the more information is accumulated, the more the discovery methods improve and the faster new discoveries come in.  Unlike with biological genes, memetic evolution is Lamarckian as well as Darwinian, and enjoys an accelerated learning curve.

This is a problem for the survival of the fundamentalism meme, because it can no longer get nourishment from the relative stability of the “truths” thrown off by the investigative memes as they go about their work.  The selection pressure now favors memes that aren’t tied as strongly to doctrinal issues, since truths change so rapidly.  This is what has been allowing the moderate meme to assert its own identity, that of a religious meme focused on “being moral” in practice.

Now that we actually have moderates, things are improving, but it’s not all roses.  The problem is that the moderate meme-bearers still conflate “being religious” and “being moral”.  This keeps them believing in things that are demonstrably false, even if that belief is shallower than that of the fundamentalists.  It also leads them to make excuses for the hateful doctrinal material of the fundamentalists, which can cause dissonance on its own. 

Finally, this conflation often leads to prejudice amongst moderates against those who have untangled the semantic confusion of “being moral” and “being religious” by getting rid of the religion meme and retaining the moral meme.  This isn’t any one particular group, but a whole category of groups that generally err on the side of secular humanism.  It’s like the semantic confusion of “being religious" and "being moral" is an adaptation that the religious memes developed because the confusion does actually help the religious memes hold on longer in people's heads by inculcating the notion that without the doctrinal content of “being religious”, they would descend into immoral chaos.  The meme-bearers don't want to be immoral, and the meme fights against the realization that moral and religious can be separated.

The memetic warfare, therefore, is geared mainly at liberating the moderates from the religious memes.  There are many tactics in play at any given time.  There’s the frontal assaults on the religious doctrines themselves by the so-called “Four Horsemen,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, as well as others that fall under the rubric of the “New Atheists”.  There’s the historians like Jennifer Hecht and Susan Jacoby, doing valuable work illustrating the long history of philosophical skepticism and doubt about doctrinal hegemony, undercutting the religious memes’ efforts to assume a universality that has never existed.  There’s the scientist educators and populizers, Carl Sagan, NeilDeGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, out there explaining the fascinating discoveries of science in a more digestible but NOT dumbed down manner, and illustrating the awesomeness of the natural world.  The legal strike forces like the FFRF, AUSCS, and Eugenie Scott and the NCSE* in the courts fighting the efforts of fundamentalists to undermine science directly. There’s the artillery division of people like Penn & Teller and the Mythbusters making skepticism awesome in the popular imagination, one explosion (or bullet catch) at a time. 

Most important of all, however, is the infantry of the common everyday atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers.  Using the more gentle approach of things like the Atheist Out Campaign, raising consciousness via similar tactics as the gay liberation movement, causing direct cognitive dissonance in the prejudiced by letting the religious meme-bearers know that not only can one be good without god(s), like the billboards and buses say, but that they already know good moral people who happen to be free of the religious memes, they’ve just been concealing their irreligion because of the intolerance.

I think we need all of these combatants in this memetic war.  Some are going to rub people the wrong way, but for others, it’ll be just what they need to hear.  It’s a war on many fronts, and requires many different strategic and tactical approaches, just as the memes we’re combating have their own multifaceted approach.

The good news is that signs seem to indicate that there is real progress being made.  Survey after survey is coming out that shows that the fastest growing “religious” group in the country (adjusted for immigration) are those marking “none” as their preference.  More and more people raised religious are moderating or leaving their faiths, and becoming more tolerant of those without religion, focusing more on just living good, moral lives.  I think that the reason we see so much more craziness from the fundamentalists who are left is that the more morally focused are leaving that kind of religion and leaving behind a precipitate of concentrated doctrinal crazy.  These people still need to be fought against on the memetic battleground, and many of those skirmishes are bloody.  But while it’s not certain, I think that a case can be made that as with the trend Steven Pinker points out about violence decreasing over time**, I think a case can be made for a similar trend with superstition and toxic religious faith.  I think generally those bearing the memes of science, critical thinking, and rationality are winning globally, and we should remember that when things look grim, while also remaining vigilant in the face of victory.


  1. Very interesting post, good food for thought and a good analysis of two of the clusters within the "religious" meme holders.

    Much like I perceived "arrogance" in the quote you posted on gplus, I worry about the use of military and war metaphor language in this piece. This way of thinking about the memes and the people who hold them will lead to problems later. And will also predispose those people who most need help freeing them from their meme-isites to resist you with everything they got.

    One suggestion of an alternate metaphor frame: infection and cure. I'm sure with some reflection you'll see the dangers of the war-metaphor and perhaps you'll think of something better than the healing one I've suggested.

  2. That's fair. Keep in mind, this is an extremely rough first draft of something I may do real work on some day when I have the academic background and resources to do it justice. I expect it'll go through lots of refinement.

    But I do know the difference between a war metaphor and actual war. The more I progress in my Buddhist practices, the more pacifist tendencies I develop. But any aggression on my part is purely conversational and rhetorical, unlike the actual aggression on the part of many of those I oppose, or the actual "militants" of the religious type.

  3. Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

    I've recently put out an ebook of my writing, called The New Death and others. It's mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard's King Kull story The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune and HP Lovecraft's Under the Pyramids.

    I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog (either a normal book review, or a review of its suitability as gaming inspiration).

    If so, please let me know your email, and what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy. You can email me ( or reply to this thread.

    You can download a sample from Smashwords:

    I'll also link to your review from my blog.