Friday, 28 March 2008

God is not a meme

I've seen a few bloggers write how religion/belief in God is a meme. I'm not so sure I agree with that.

First off, I've read the God Delusion and The Selfish Gene, and am assuming those who wrote about memes also have. On the book God Delusion itself, I will say that Dawkins displays considerable intellectual arrogance and I don't really like him, champion of atheism or not. That's one of the great things about the secular world - you can criticise the "greats" without fear of a slap from God - or more likely, your rabbi.

It was Dawkins who introduced the meme and he stated a number of reasons as to why he did. The first was that is sounds like 'gene.' Another was that it was supposed to be analogus to the gene in 'structural make-up' and behaviour - that it finds a host and replicates (the gene equivalent of finding a mate and having babies).

The single most significant flaw in this reasoning is that culture is not bits of infromation floating around. Neither is it analogus to the gene in 'structure.'

What is more accurate to describe the fact that religion has propogated itself so far and for so long, at least in my opinion, is a combination of social/moral cohesion and violence.

Social cohesion means that a number of people in a single society are all forced to stay together and keep the traditions and values of that society, by society itself. Whilst that sounds rather odd in abstract terms, since if all individuals wanted to leave society, you'd expect them to be able to do it, for at first glance, it is the individuals who make up society. But in practise, the truth is different.

Take the Jewish community for example. Someone who grows up in a Jewish community will replicate the behaviour of the people in that community. If their behaviour differs from the norm, they will be put back in line by members of the wider community. That could be a parent, a teacher, a friend, a neighbour or a complete stranger who tells you off. This is all due to the effects of cohesion - keeping people together.

Of course, physically leaving the community is difficult, for the indivdual has been integrated into society to the extent that they rely upon it and should they leave, their social and perhaps economic lives will fall away...until they rebuild in a different community which has different values. Of course, the society will continue to function after the individual has left and the community will barely feel the absence of the few who are able to resist this cohesion.

Think of it in terms of quicksand. The longer you stay in the same swamp, the deeper you go in, the more the effects of cohesion, the harder it is to remove yourself. It's possible, just difficult.

Therefore religion is not merely an abstract bit of culture, an idea which has been passed down generations: it is a reinforced way of life which isn't "transferred" to the next generation - the next generation is automatically born into it and necessarily imitates the behaviour of those around them.

Violence is a part of it because that's how religions have tended to remain alive and/or grow. For example, Islam. Sikhism. And just about any other religion...they've all had violent pasts as far as I can tell.

Perhaps this gives a greater insight into the Darwinian necessity of religion than does the concept of a meme. Afterall, the idea of a meme is too abstract to understand why a particular meme would be replicated. This theory (which I'm sure belongs to Weber and that I've done it a great injustice) suggests survival of the individual - the individual now has a community to rely upon. It also suggest the survival of the community, in that the society will always have a membership and those members will remain loyal to that particular community even if it makes contact with other communities.

In short, individuals have little choice how they act, as they will usually only ever act within the bounds of a certain community. If your parents are Jewish, you'll end up being Jewish. If parents vote republican, it's likely their kids will too.

Incidentally, people are therefore predictable and we can therefore begin to predict modes of behaviour based on this alone.

Let the arguing begin.

N.B. this is over-simplistic and was written hurridly between essays over a number of hours.


originblogger said...

I think the question the "meme hypothesis" is supposed to answer is a different question than the question your "theory" answers. Memetics is put forward as a way to learn how the ideas of a religion evolved, and your theory seems to answer the question of what are the mechanisms that keep people in line once they are in a religion or why a certain religion grows.

I'm currently indifferent about at what level memetics actually works (though I find it self-evident that it should work at some level), to defend memetics from your argument, I would say that the mechanisms you put forth are either part of human nature that memetics works on top of or/and the memes that have encompassed religions that allow it to propagate, which have been adapted over time.

originblogger said...

The difference is subtle, so let me take some time to explain exactly what I mean.

In "The Selfish Gene" Dawkins presents memetics as simply a pedagogical technique to explain that the genetic model works outside the gene, which is what memetics is supposed to be analogous to.

Now, in terms of normal genetic evolution, the question is: what methods allows certain animals to succeed?

Now its the case that certain animals use aggression better than others, which allows them to succeed, but how they received that method is explained with evolution, which is the theory consisting of evolutionary models of genetic information transfer.

The same with memetics. Most, if not all, religions have grown due to warfare and social cohesion, as you claim. But one needs to understand how religions gained this ability to use such functions successfully. Memetics is that theory, which simply explains that cultural items evolve also with replication and modification just like evolution.

Jewish Sceptic said...

But one needs to understand how religions gained this ability to use such functions successfully. Memetics is that theory, which simply explains that cultural items evolve also with replication and modification just like evolution.

Yeees, ok.

Let me clarify and extend the theory in this post.

The theory presented here: replication of religion took place via cohesion. As to how, Perhaps a Lamarckian interpretation is more fitting than a Darwinian meme-like one: culture is transmitted intentionally and is based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics, e.g. new discoveries which are then passed on culturally (Boyd and Richerson in culture and the evolutionary process).

I don't know if I've compounded my misunderstanding, or contributed anything interesting and new...

originblogger said...

I would recommend Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. I contains best approach to religious memetics that I have read so far.