Thursday, 16 October 2008

The Meme of Religion

Atheists, as well as secularists, receive a lot of criticism for speaking out on religion. The sacredness of belief is such that blasphemy is one thing that isn't tolerated. When Bill Maher went on The Daily Show to promote his new movie Religulous, Jon Stewart asked "doesn't [religion] fill that purpose of comfort and aid?" [for the full interview, part 1 part 2] It's a question that seems to come up again and again, and it really seems to be a sticking point. From an evolutionary perspective there must be some benefit to having religion, either on an individual or a group level. What purpose does the meme serve, how did it come to be this way, and what is it's future?

Constructing the construct
Like in biology, to look at religion now we look at the end product of thousands of years of memetic evolution. Ideas on the nature of reality have come and gone, always adapting and evolving where it's needed. As a result, religion is very much like a biological organism; it can become irreducibly complex over time. It's absurd to think that religion is now as it always was, and what is needed is to understand how a religion can be built from the ground up and come to the form it takes now. Of course there is more than one way religion works, there's plenty of different memes out there that are religion. Now it would be logical to assume that all these concepts would stem from a common ancestor, a precursor to religious belief.

In the beginning there were homo sapiens, upright apes who had little idea about the reality they lived in. The hunter gatherers spent much of their time looking for food and shelter, the basic necessities for survival. They migrated from area to area in search of food. They were also social creatures where children needed constant support in order to survive. These creatures also had big brains, imaginative brains that worked at a higher level. The perception of perception, that understanding of self, they had the capacity to think about the world. Herein lies the parameters in which the meme was born.

It could be inferred that the basics of religion was born out of human uncertainty: uncertainty about safety, uncertainty about food, uncertainty about nature itself. The beliefs were order in a chaotic world. As society progressed the meme changed, organised religion came not long after the birth of civilisation. The larger the group, the more necessity for control. Now food was secure, group safety and social cohesion were more important facets of the meme. Now either a new meme can come in and fill the void or the old meme can evolve. The new memes build on what's already there, just as our eye evolved from what is already there. Redundant parts can be lost and the meme becomes irreducibly complex. For many there can be no Christianity without the literal Genesis account, the idea of God is irreducibly linked to the Garden of Eden.

In the modern day we are left with a construct that can not easily be disassembled, the meme itself has evolved to be an integral part of the human condition so just removing it will not work. It has benefits to the individual and that individuals interaction in society. The church is still a place for social cohesion, the words of the priest are still a guide for better living, there's still great uncertainty of the great unknown (death) and ignorance of how reality works in the first place. All these factors need to be replaced before the idea will be given up. In effect the meme has evolved a defence mechanism: it's perceived necessity.

Deconstructing the construct
As I wrote earlier, although difficult the meme can be broken up into a series of components that work together to make the whole. In the last 200 years the rise of the scientific method has etched away at the historical merit of the memes, there's more and more who now see their holy texts are spiritual guides as opposed to a guide for history and science. Secularism is another idea that has challenged religion, morality is not the absolute it once was and liberal democracy has laid the foundation for a more progressive society where there is freedom of choice. The exchange of ideas alongside prosperity has vastly reduced the amount of conflict between rival groups, violent crime is at record lows.

In a lot of ways many components of religion are redundant, they have been replaced by more specific and better memes. But there are still some areas where the components of religion are not adequately replaced. The meaning of life is one. It's often asked that without religion how can there be meaning? Of course, this is confusing the necessity of meaning in us for there to actually be meaning to be given. Like morality, meaning isn't something objective to find. It's derived from our thoughts and character, built up based on our understanding of the world and limited by the genes and environment we live in. The need for God is not proof of God, just as the need for meaning is not proof of universal meaning.

In all of us there is a sense of fairness, of right and wrong. This is again a basis of social interaction and a necessity for law. Many do wrong and get away with it, our sense of fairness wants them to be punished for their misgivings. By taking away this element of religion, be it the eternal judge guarding the pearly gates or reincarnation as an earthworm (personally I'm hoping for gibbon), universal justice is lost. This also has the unfortunate side effect of people having to take personal responsibility for their actions with no God to absolve them of their sins. Bush praying to God before invading Iraq is a supreme act of moral cowardice, but it's one of comfort - for his act was God's plan.

Death is another factor. The materialist answer to the problem of death is incredibly unsatisfying. That's it, that's the end, hope you enjoyed the ride. In the words of the band Regurgitator:
All that I am and all I'll ever be is a brain in a body
Live 'till I die and then rot away, it's a beautiful story
Ideas like Pascal's Wager use this as the cornerstone of persuasion. Why choose mortality when there is a chance at immortality? Surely this line of thinking can at best be a rationalisation for those who already belief rather than a reason to in the first place. Indeed a lot of the justifications for belief like morality, justice, eternal life, love, etc. are all rationalisations not reasons.

Ignorance is bliss
To most people, there's no need at all for understanding the precise nature of reality in order to operate. One doesn't need meticulous knowledge of how a car works in order to drive it, the operation is abstracted enough that a few simple commands successfully operate a complex machine. Same goes for a computer, most people wouldn't have a clue how a computer works on any layer other than the most basic I/O yet they can operate it. People don't need to understand that the world is 4.5 billion years old to live on it, nor do they need to understand that they are the end product of 4 billion years of adaptation and change in order to survive.

The explanation may even be detrimental, explaining seemingly miraculous processes with material explanations. Love, consciousness, happiness, life, the universe, everything, all of which had mystique and meaning. It is perplexing to me that people need intent on a phenomenon in order to find meaning in it. That feeling is extraordinary so it needs a extraordinary explanation. There are explanations out there now, yet require a sophisticated understanding of the nature of reality in order to appreciate. Saying "Goddidit" is far easier to do, and that is why the meme of religion will carry on regardless of how far materialism takes us.

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