Deconstructing Religion: A Memetic Perspective
Years before he felt the need to show people that science is the only “right” way to discover the ultimate truth (whatever that is) and that religion is the root of all evil (for want of a better way of putting it), the British biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene coined the term meme to describe a very interesting concept which I want to put to use in this article.
Whereas genes are responsible for transmitting biological information, memes transmit ideas, beliefs or opinions from person to person within a culture. What makes memetics (the study of memes) useful is that it allows us to study beliefs using the same principles used to study genes. In other words, we can apply such concepts as evolutionary theory to ideas and beliefs to try to ascertain why some survive whilst others die over time. It also allows us to look at ways of grouping ideas into sets so that we can study these groups in more details to see how they relate to each other.
One of the most interesting applications of memetics is in the study of religions, which essentially consist of a large number of memes, and in this article I plan to present my own perspective as to how I see religions from a memetic point of view. In particular I will highlight a very interesting adaptational advantage which Art of Living has developed which I believe has helped it to spread to as many people, especially Westerners, as it has.
Religion as a Collection of Memes
Every religion can be viewed as a meme “package”, essentially a collection of memes. The memes which form any given religion can be classified into three groups:
- World View memes – which include how the universe came into being, whether or not there is/was a creator responsible for bringing it into being, whether there is an afterlife, and how the laws of the universe operate. These memes differ in detail from religion to religion, however most posit that there is a supreme being (God) who in one way or another was responsible for bringing the universe into existence.
- Moral and Spiritual Values memes – which are rules or guidelines that followers of the religion are asked to adhere to in order to make them better people. Again there are many similarities from religion to religion, such as that one shouldn’t kill, one should be kind and compassionate towards others, one shouldn’t steal, and so on.
- Group Support memes – which are more subtle beliefs that followers are asked to commit to which don’t so much benefit them as they do the religion as a whole. Examples are provided in the following section.
Whilst both World View memes and Moral and Spiritual Values memes play a large part in drawing new recruits into a religion, it is the Group Support memes which are ultimately responsible for ensuring the survival and continued growth of the religion. What is particularly interesting is that these memes are almost identical across all religions.
Group Support Memes
One of the underlying concepts in the field of memetics is that ideas and beliefs can be studied in a very similar way to genes, for instance by applying the laws of natural selection.
Gene packages (for instance humans) compete for finite resources (food, land and so on) in order to ensure the survival of the constituent genes. Over long enough periods of time, certain genes mutate and develop competitive advantages which ensure the survival of their hosts over other contemporary genes which die out.
Meme packages are also competing against other meme packages for survival, this time with the number of viable hosts (human minds) as the finite resource. Religions are a very good example of this behaviour, especially as it seems that over time they too have evolved memetic advantages to ensure their survival over other (competing) religions.
These memetic advantages, which help to ensure the survival of a religion in any given population, are what I am terming “Group Support memes”, since they are supporting the group, in this case the religion.
The following is list of key Group Support memes which can be found to some extent in most religions:
- Followers of this religion cannot follow any other religions. This “religious exclusivity” meme is prevalent in all major world religions, and as such it is rare to find someone who follows more than one religion.
- This religion is superior to all other religions.
- The God of this religion is the ultimate God and all other Gods are false (or lesser Gods.)
- Followers of this religion are specially chosen, over and above all others, by God (or by his representative in Earth). This particular belief leads to a superiority complex in followers.
- The world is in some kind of imminent danger, and the followers of this religion will be the only ones to be saved, whilst all others will perish.
- Those who follow this religion will eventually become liberated / enlightened, if not in this life then in some future life.
- Followers of the religion “belong” to the religion, are members of the religion. This belief results in the followers self-identifying with the religion and with its tenets. This creates an in-group vs out-group, or “us and them”, dynamic between followers and non-followers. It also means that followers will easily be offended by any criticism of the religion, its various tenets, or of the founder since they will see it as a direct criticism of themselves and will naturally become defensive.
- To advance on the path of this religion, it is important to proselytize by spreading the Moral and Spiritual Values of the religion in order to draw more people into the religion. An obvious incentive for doing this is that followers will somehow be “saving” non-followers from the imminent danger they believe the world is in by converting them. Interestingly enough, Group Support memes themselves aren’t used to proselytize as they do not in and of themselves hold any moral or spiritual value.
- If necessary it is acceptable to use force to convert people to the religion. This only applies to some religions.
- For those who cannot be converted to the religion, they may be treated as an enemy of the religion and any appropriate action may be taken against them. This only applies to some religions.
- The founder/leader of the religion is/was an enlightened being, an incarnation of God, or a representative of God on earth. He/she could perform miracles, and this is proof of their divinity. The founder/leader is also seen as the ultimate authority, and must be worshipped.
- Collectivism is more important than individualism, in other words the survival and welfare of the group as a whole is more important than the survival and welfare of any single follower.
- Blind faith in the leader (whether dead or alive), ancient scriptures, or God is greatly encouraged.
- If the World View of the religion holds some belief in an afterlife, be it eternity in either heaven or hell, or reincarnation back into this world again over successive lifetimes, followers are led to believe that their actions in this life will have some influence over what they will go on to afterwards. In particular many religions will profess that members of that religion are guaranteed a better life after death (for instance going to heaven), simply because they are members.
It is evident that although a very small number of these Group Support memes may have been derived from the World View memes of the respective religion, the majority were never a part the religion when it was first conceived, but rather have been introduced over time to help support the religion.
Since the number of world religions has increased significantly over the last two to three millennia, and more recently the means by which information can be transmitted have also increased especially over the last few hundred years due to advances in technology, this has meant that religions have now more than ever before come under threat from competing religions.
As such, whilst the World View and Moral and Spiritual Values memes by themselves are enough to draw people into a religion, they can do very little to prevent followers from leaving that religion in favour of a competing religion should that competing religion have something better to offer. Especially if they are unsatisfied with their current religion.
So it would seem that these Group Support memes have evolved over time in response to ever-increasing threats from competing religions in order to preserve the original tenets of the religion and to ensure its survival within any given population. This is why these memes are so prevalent in most world religions today.
There is a particularly interesting feature of these Group Support memes, and that is that some followers of any given religion will view these as being more important than the World View or Moral and Spiritual Values memes of that religion. This is because within an individual, memes of a religion will be competing for each other for importance, and as such to many, the Group Support memes actually seem to be more fundamental to a religion than do any of the other tenets. Especially in the many cases where there are actually contradictions between the Group Support memes and the remaining memes.
There is much evidence to support this, such as the the occurrence of Holy wars worldwide (even though most religions profess peace and love and that killing is wrong), followers being more focused on proselytising than on living the spiritual tenets of the religion (which often many don’t follow at all), and of course self-identification with the religion and the beliefs of the religion which as we have already mentioned creates divisiveness (which contradicts one of the underlying tenets of most religions which is to create unity and harmony among people).
As well as helping to ensure the survival and propagation of the religion, a number of these Group Support memes, for instance establishing a leader as the ultimate authority and encouraging blind faith in followers, have doubtless evolved to benefit those who are in some way in control of a religion by increasing the power they have over their followers.
How does all this relate to Art of Living?
It is obvious to anyone who has spent any serious amount of time with Art of Living that it has a) a world view which is based entirely on Hinduism, b) Moral and spiritual values which again are drawn from Hinduism, and c) the majority of Group Support memes enumerated above. For instance, followers are generally far more interested in proselytising than they are actually living the core values, they are encouraged to surrender to the Guru and accept him as the ultimate authority as well as an incarnation of God, they are led to believe they are specially chosen, that Art of Living is the highest path, and that they will be saved from the imminent danger which they believe the world to be in by being on this path.
Art of Living’s founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, is obviously a Hindu Guru, and his entourage consists of a number of “Swamis” and “Rishis”, titles which are given to Godmen only in Hinduism. In every possible respect, then, Art of Living is at the very least a Hindu organization, and in some respects it can even be viewed as a religion in its own right with its roots in Hinduism.
What is particularly interesting about Art of Living, however, is that it makes use of an incredibly powerful mechanism, which up until recently was something which religions weren’t aware of, to ensure its survival and propagation. The Group Support memes mentioned above evolved to prevent followers from converting to competing religions. However, what Art of Living does which is a master stroke of genius is that it uses every means available to it to convince prospective followers that it is a non-religious, non-sectarian, secular organization. How does this give it any survival advantage? Simply by not presenting any threat to a religion which a prospective recruit already follows, since Art of Living won’t be seen as a competing religion. How many times have we heard that “Guruji is beyond religion”, and how many of us actually believed it?
Additionally, it has also removed the “religious exclusivity” meme, which gives it yet another propagation advantage in that potential recruits can seemingly follow Art of Living without foregoing their existing religion.
Once followers are reeled in, over time they are gradually exposed more and more to the various tenets of Hinduism, such as that the it is a spiritual organization founded by a Hindu Guru, that it is important to kneel down and touch his feet, and that ultimately one should strive to surrender to him. As long as they continue along this path, before they realize what’s hit them they will have become Hindus in all but name! And what is even more interesting is that everyone knows deep down inside that it is a Hindu organization and that they have been deceived this entire time, but they not only accept it, they themselves further perpetuate the lie. Why? Because they have been convinced of yet another powerful Group Support meme found in Art of Living: that it is ok to use deception if the ends justify the means, which they are also led to believe that it does in this case.
Really then, doesn’t Ravi Shankar have a hidden agenda which is simply to use Art of Living as a vehicle to convert as many people as possible to Hinduism without their realizing it? Isn’t he in turn using Hinduism as a means to make more people worship him and surrender to him? Would the majority of non-Hindus have taken an Art of Living course in the first place if they were told from the outset that Art of Living was a Hindu organization? And when all is said and done, is it ok for a religious organization to deceive its followers by claiming it is not a religious organization?
Moving Beyond Religion
Any group which calls itself a spiritual organization but which claims it is not religious, is lying. It can’t get simpler than that. Whilst an organization can teach World View and Moral and Spiritual Value memes, as long it also teaches Group Support memes, we have to label it a religious organization. We also have to question why it is claiming that it is a non-religious organization, and if, as is the case with Art of Living, it is doing it to deceive people in order to bring more followers into its fold, we need to alert people that this deception is taking place. As we are doing here.
Whilst I believe there is a lot of value in religions, the Group Support memes present in most religions detract greatly from the moral and spiritual values taught by these religions. As such, surely individuals will be better off actually taking a more a secular approach towards religion in general, or at least religious organizations, and opting instead to study the various values of any religions which they feel drawn to, rather than deciding to become a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist or any other denomination they care to mention? Wouldn’t the world then truly become a better place without religious organizations?