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15 March 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:32am

Memes

In her final blog, atheist Sue Blackmore gives her assessment of the role of religions

By Susan Blackmore

Why do so many people say they have faith – or claim to be a ‘person of faith’, belong to a ‘faith community’, or send their children to a ‘faith school’? On the face of it having faith hardly seems something to be proud of. If it means believing in something without proof or evidence, why would anyone want to do that? Isn’t it better to try to decide what you believe in by asking questions, looking for evidence, or weighing up probabilities?

Imagine what you’d think if an old man in the pub told you that his mother was a virgin, or your friend said she saw a dead and decomposing body brought back to life, or the barman said he knew of a secret place where garments of fire are prepared for people who believe one thing and clothes of silk and gold for people who believe something else. You would most likely have a good laugh, say “Pull the other one” or, if they appeared to be serious, ask for evidence or some good reason to believe them.

So why are different standards applied when it comes to religion? An answer can be found by seeing religions as intricate, self-perpetuating complexes of memes or memeplexes that have evolved clever tricks to undermine people’s natural curiosity and good sense, and so install themselves in lots and lots of brains.

Memes are any information that is copied from person to person (or person to book, to computer, or artefact). They include stories, songs, technologies, scientific theories (including memetics), social conventions, laws, works of art – indeed everything that makes up our culture.

According to memetics, memes are replicators, just as genes are, but rather than competing to get copied as strings of DNA inside cells, they compete to use our brains to store and repeat them. And we do – willingly. Almost from the day we are born we begin imitating those around us, learning language, imbibing stories and ways of doing things. The memes we pick up are the ones that have already succeeded in the evolutionary competition, and will succeed again if more people pick them up and pass them on.
So why do some memes thrive and others die out? Generally some survive because they are good, true, useful or beautiful.

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For example, in science (by and large) theories survive the competition by making accurate predictions or providing useful technology. In the arts memes win by being beautiful, awe-inspiring, funny, or shocking. Other memes survive even though they are useless or harmful, by using tricks to get us to pass them on. These meme viruses include chain letters, email viruses, useless medical treatments, astrological predictions and many more.

Which category, then, should we put religions in? Although religions claim to be true, and claim to be useful, I suggest they are neither; they cause wars, conflict and oppression, and religious societies are less healthy ones: religions succeed because they trick us. They usually hit us when we are too young to realise what is happening and by the time our critical faculty has matured it is too late.

The tricks are many and various. Most obvious are the threats and promises. Those who accept such inherently unlikely ideas as an omnipotent and omniscient God God, a merciful God who murders people, or stories of miracles, get to go to heaven: those who do not end up in hell.

And what child of three or four, terrified at the thought of burning in huge fires or being thrown into eternal darkness, has the skills to work out that this doesn’t make sense. This is why Richard Dawkins calls religious education child abuse.

Why do people keep passing on these ideas? Because the religions explicitly tell them to. Catholics are commanded to have lots of children and bring them up in the faith, evangelists are urged to spread “the good news of Jesus”, and Callers to Islam are praised for bringing others to Allah.

And why do they obey rather than thinking for themselves? As a Muslim, if you break with the faith you are an apostate and worse than an infidel, the offence is “graver than slaughter”, and the punishment is death (presumably followed by hell). This combination of the untestable threat of a future hell and the realistic one of capital punishment is pretty dire. Perhaps spending your life promoting such doctrines is a small price to pay for avoiding such consequences. And so the memes do very well, infecting countless more people, as a virus of the mind.

There are plenty more tricks too; getting people to pay to build beautiful cathedrals, mosques, temples, statues, and altars to inspire further converts and more investment, training celibate priests who will devote all their time to passing on memes instead of genes, or suicide bombers who give up their lives to promote their memes; teaching people that having faith is good while doubt, questioning and testing are bad (the opposite of science). By contrast Sam Harris blames faith itself, even moderate faith, for the worst of the world’s atrocities, and Richard Dawkins argues faith is “one of the world’s great evils”.

And – I’d laugh if this weren’t so serious – the admonition not to laugh. Oh dear. I find a wry smile forming itself when I think about this – but it’s true – and it’s horrible. The ideas of heaven, hell, souls and omnipotent gods are surely worthy of a good laugh (and may I be struck down if they are all true). But obviously humour would take away their power. So, especially in Islam, you are not to laugh.

Think of the tragic story of the Danish cartoons. This horror continues. A student at at Clare College, Cambridge is currently in hiding because he dared print part of a cartoon of Mohammed in the College’s prize-winning satirical magazine.

Worse still the College did not stand up for him. The “offence” Muslims claim to suffer at just knowing this picture was printed (almost no one has actually seen it) has – for the moment – trumped any considerations of free speech, or just the ordinary freedom to laugh at things we find ridiculous. A blog I wrote about this for the Guardian was delayed more than two weeks because it was such a sensitive issue, and when published they removed the link to the actual cartoons.

The great religions of the world have survived against all upstart cults, and countless small groups, because along they way they evolved these powerful and unpleasant tricks. None of this disproves the existence of God, heaven or hell, but it does show why people will proclaim their faith for no better reason than that they are infected with memes that make faith seem the safest option.