Reconciling memetics and religion.

Nowadays the conceptualization of the evolution of human thought as the competition between self-replicating memes (memetics) tends to be brought up in arguments against the reliability of mainstream belief systems. Richard Dawkins famously argued that just as there can be selfish genes that don’t benefit their hosts and yet thrive at self-replicating, there are plenty of cases in which memes harmful to the individual who holds them replicate successfully.

This observation is usually used as an argument against religious doctrine for two reasons. First, memetics would predict the appearance of emotionally satisfying pseudo-explanations for the things we don’t understand, such as the nature of reality and what happens after death. And second, these explanations would not in any way have to reflect true facts; in fact, truth may have little to do with a meme’s success at self-replicating. Thus, religions will probably proclaim ideas that makes them self-replicate whether or not the claims made are true.

Thus memetics may be capable of (1) explaining the existence of religion and (2) dismissing major religious claims as mere strategies for self-replication (e.g. “if you don’t believe in God you will go to Hell!”). I personally know several persons who either became atheist or at least much more skeptical of religious prescriptions after considering memetics deeply.

As far as I know neither the Vatican nor any major religious promoter has addressed successfully this new and fascinating source of skepticism.

All that is old news. Here is the innovation: It occurs to me that memetics can actually be used to defend major religions in a grounded way. See, the dumb rhetorical move from a religious point of view, which is also the most tempting and commonly made, is to attack memetics itself. Say, by spousing romantic and even fanatical views about the nature of the evolution of ideas, one can pretend that the laws of self-reproduction break down when we are talking about minds and the mystical. Or worse, proclaim that such a view makes us look like robots hijacked by memes to fulfill their purpose, and that for such a reason it cannot be the case (an instance of “too ugly to be true”).

There is, however, a rational reply that religious authorities could give, if they actually did the harder move: Embrace memetics instead of dismissing it. You see, over time we can indeed predict that any ideology will get better and better at self-replicating. Appeal to emotion may even take over rational and evidence-based argumentation. One could in principle claim that these features will be observed in any religion or ideology, specially if it has endured hundreds of years of cultural evolution.

Now here is the twist:
It may be *precisely* because of memetic evolution that the true word of God has been corrupted. We might have had it all explained to us in the past. God could have well given us an excellent evidence-based and rational explanation about what happens after death, morality and what we should do to be good people.

And yet, in spite of God’s good intentions, cultural evolution corrupted his message over time. They could say: The reason why my religion promotes many ethically questionable behaviors is not because it didn’t have a Godly seed. It is because with time, more emotionally-appealing versions of the religion gradually out-competed the original Truth. Yet, we are still connected to that seed, and our labor is to reconstruct the original message.


  1. Gabriel · May 4, 2022

    Classical abrahamic monotheism is philosophically doomed anyway. You’d think an all-powerfull, all-knowing God would account for memetics and take measurements to preserve or rectify his message over time and not watch it degradates while doing nothing. More limited versions of supernatural beings are at least logically consistent.

    And even if it cuts both ways, science has and still is developing methods to account for and overcome it.

  2. tmtyler · October 14, 2018

    Alister McGrath is among those who have defended religion against memetics in multiple books – including “Dawkins’ GOD: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life”. His main points include: 1. memetics is pseudoscience. 2. even if true, memetics applies to science as well as religion – as a critique, it cuts both ways.

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