The memetic basis of religion


Published as Correspondence Letter in Nature 365: 290. 1993.

(Title given by Nature Editors)



The correspondence of B. D. Josephson (1) reminds of an earlier contribution by A. Baidins (2). Both authors want to find a way to study religion scientifically and suggest that this might be achieved through the assumption that the ability to experience religous feelings may be encoded in the genes. Religion than is selected because 'the central theme of religion is the attempt to maximize human goodness and 'because societies in which this potential is actualized ... will tend to function more harmoniously and more efficiently' (1) or because 'Some humans are dimly aware of another dimension in this Universe... which helps them make more constructive decisions than those people lacking such a faculty' (2).

In my opinion one should be very careful not to confuse different 'levels', like atoms, genes, organisms, intelligence, and thoughts. Others, like R. Penrose, make an even bigger leap, trying to explain mental events with quantum physics.

I prefer to look at religion as an emergent characteristic, which can only arise after other levels have comen to full development. Looking at it this way, religion has to do with the confrontation of our animal emotionality with our human superintelligence. I will try to briefly expose the elements of this hypothesis.

Evolution has conceived animals as organisms which tend to reach what could be called a 'hormonal equilibrium', which we experience as happiness. Through performing certain tasks - those tasks like feeding, fleeing and sexual behaviour, which finally have as the single purpose to multiply the genes present - the animal is rewarded: it experiences joy, relief, satisfaction, 'happiness'. For genes, who have to program organisms, living in a completely different world (at a different 'level') this is an elegant, effective and universally applicable solution. The molecular mechanisms for this neuro-endrocrinological master regulation system are being unravelled quickly. Thus, regarding animals and humans as basically emotional beings is the first cornerstone in this hypothesis, necessary for the building up of the second element, intelligence. The ability to enjoy and to fear underlies the evolutionary development of intelligence. Animals and children learn through joy and fear, and experience emotional reward when making new discoveries.

The selective advantage of intelligence, which develops independantly and increases continuously in different animal phyla and families - illustrating that there must be a strong selective advantage, is easy to see: intelligence allows to store information from the past to tackle more efficiently current situations.

Human superintelligence however passed beyond a treshold: its tremendous associations making capacity leads to unlimited phantasy and allows to pierce into the future. This property leads to a fundamental problem: animals fall asleep after a good meal or feel relieved after escaping a predator, but humans loose their ability to enjoy fully the present state of happiness since they keep bothering whether they will find food tomorrow or whether they will escape next time. And they continue to do so on every possible moment for all kinds of events (will our children grow happily, will I pass my exam, will I see her again, what will happen when I die). For humans, instant animal anger and joy turns into endless fear and longing. Since mental events can strongly influence neuro-endocrinological functioning (and vice versa), humans become uncertain and are prone to depressions.

From this point of view one can begin to hypothesize about possible human behaviours as solutions to this problem.

Logically one can do two things: one can try to solve the problems caused by our excess ability to make associations by more thinking and by constructing thoughts or theories which can bring relief, or one can try to stop thinking (which is very hard to do). The first solution gives raise to ideas which one could call 'memes', a term that has been revived by R. Dawkins. Memes then are those thought constructions which can supply an individual with certainty about its own fate. A memetic selection pressure can be inferred from this: those thoughts which apply to the above described criterium will be selected from the thought pool and will be succesfully distributed - horizontally - into different brains. (By the way: the fact that culture, including memes, can be transferred horizontally makes that it cannot act on societies and individuals the way genetic selection pressures do.) One can study meme selection, meme classification and memetic evolution. E.g. memes have a high adaptation capacity: just consider the changes western religious doctrines have went through to adapt to the findings of science.

So religion could be considered as a meme. Gods, divine powers, or holy trees are believed to let us influence the future. Indeed religion helps individuals to function more efficiently, as Baidins suggested (2). However this is not because some individuals have some genetic ability for religion, but because religion is a meme. Also in opposition with Josephson and Baidins, I not consider altruism as the essence of religion, but its memetic property as defined above. Initially people tried to influence gods and powers - and thus the future and their own fate - with offerings, and only later things like promoting altruistic behaviour and rules for social organisation were grafted onto religion. Even then the essence of religion remains the influencing of the future: the major reason to behave according to the rules is that one can propitiate the deity by doing so.

Another interesting meme, which could be regarded as co-evoluting with religion, is anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism is a meme because it provides an individual with self confirmation by the assurance that he/she belongs to a superb (divine) species.

Is science a meme? Astronomy certainly was from the very beginning of cultural history. Astronomy allows to foresee future events like eclipses or seasonal weather changes. That might be the reason why astronomy is the only scientific branch which was developed to a high degree early in cultural history and independantly in different cultures. It brought power to those who were able to make the necessary calculations and it is was worth enough to erect enormous - scientific - measurement constructions. Observe that priests were also astronomists in many cultures.

Scientific reasoning itself to be accepted as a possibility to bring more certainty, had to await Newton. All of a sudden people realized that our own 'reason' could unravel divine rules. People started to 'believe' in science, which had been considered for many centuries as merely suited to resolve practical problems - like how to build cathedrals for the purpose of religion, the major meme in the prescientific world. Thus the fact that science became a meme might be the basic reason for its sudden explosion.

The nonmemetic way to tackle the problem is to stop thinking, because our excess of thinking ability is one of the fundaments of the problem. No one wants to eliminate the other fundament of the problem (feelings) - because emotion developed earlier and is more essential to our functioning? Elimination of our mental activity allows us to reach directly the animal happiness state. Again two major approaches can be distinghuished.

Buddhism, generally not considered as a religion - in contrast to how Josephson sees it (1), provides us with techniques to do so. Meditation e.g. can produce a happy feeling of unawareness, the not-knowing state of animals.

Materialistic nonmemetic solutions become possible in societies of plenty. People try to stop thinking by emphasizing the essential (animal) needs: they try to directly stimulate their pleasure centers with all kinds of chemicals or they try to experience joy via the evolutionarily developed channels by exaggerating e.g. feeding, sexual or self confirmation behaviour.

All of this is only a hypothesis, but one which allows to study human behaviour, including religion, scientifically and interdisciplinary. It might give us an opportunity to approach very different kinds of human behaviour (from killing for ideas to driving with cars too big) with a single key: we are doing all of this because evolution made us naturally unhappy organisms, struggling with the emotional consequences of our excess of associative capacity.

1. Josephson, B.D. 1993. Nature 362: 583.

2. Baidins, A. 1990. Nature 346: 693.