Monday, November 28, 2005

Is Religion a Computer Virus for the Brain?

"Among many anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers, it has recently become fashionable to dismiss all religions as memes - parasitic mental processes which propagate in the same manner as chain letters [Dawkins 1989, Dennett 1995]. In this view, religious belief is a self-perpetuating delusion. A meme (rhymes with 'dream') may be defined as any self-referential belief system which contains within itself the instructions for its own propagation. Memes are often described as the cultural equivalents of computer viruses.

A meme carries exactly the same fear-driven psychological motivation as a chain letter - "If you propagate me then something nice will happen, if not then something horrible will happen". In order to justify themselves against attack by reason, memes place absolute reliance on faith, which is seen as being superior to reason. They also contain self-referential or circular claims to the truth such as "This meme says it is the divine truth. Since it is the divine truth whatever its says must be true. Therefore it must be divine truth because it says so and all competing memes must be the work of the Devil".

These two types of self-referential statement "propagate me" and "I am the only truth" provide the driving force for memes to invade the minds of their hosts. In addition, many memes contain the instructions "Help people who believe in this meme, attack people who do not". These commands being the ultimate cause of all religious hatred, wars, pogroms and persecutions throughout the centuries.

The general defining features of all memes can thus be seen to be self-referential 'closed-loop' type of circular statements, and a strong tendency towards hate and intolerance. The science of the study of memes, their internal structures and modes of propagation is known as memetics (by analogy to genetics - how biological entities propagate themselves).

More detailed analysis will usually show the following features:Like a virus or parasitic worm, a successful meme must perform two actions:- Ensure it takes up long-term residence in its host.- Bring about the conditions for its spread.

To establish itself in the mind of its host it will use some or all of the following mechanisms:

[1] Promise heaven for belief.

[2] Threaten eternal punishment in hell for disbelief.

[3] Boost the believers' egos by telling them they are 'chosen' or superior to believers in false memes.

[4] Disable the faculties of disbelief ('immune response') by claiming that faith is superior to reason.

[5] Establish itself as the One True Meme, usually by some sort of holy book containing a circular self-referential argument such as:

X is the one true meme. We know X is the one true meme because The Source of Universal Truth has approved X. We know The Source of Universal Truth has approved X, because X contains statements which say so. We know what X says is true because X is the one true meme.Once it has parasitised the mind of its host, a meme needs to propagate itself.

A successful meme will contain instructions for some or all of the following:

[6] Holy war - convert or kill all unbelievers.

[7] Intimidation and terrorism - threaten and discriminate against unbelievers.

[8] Enforced social isolation or even death to apostates. (An apostate is a host which has cured itself of a meme-infection. It is especially dangerous to the meme because it might pass on meme-resistance to others).

[9] Fecundism - encourage true believers to breed faster than believers in false memes.

[10] Censorship - prevent rival memes from reaching potential hosts (a theological doctrine known as 'Error has no rights').

[11] Disinformation - spread lies about rival memes. Demonise them - the bigger the lies the more likely they are to be believed. The disinformation may even include instructions for a meme to lie about itself!"


This is a thought-provoking article, but I think there's more to religious memes than these simple "instructions." I think it is arguable that the "god(s)" of these religions represent a kind of "parasitic intelligence" that is able to "borrow" the processing capacity of the host brain to "think," "act" (via its hosts' bodies) and adapt to changing circumstances. For example, the Bible contains a considerable amount of information relating to the character and personality of Yahweh and/or Jesus, including stories (myths) showing how he acts, and a volume of propagandistic pronouncements, commandments, etc.

Taken together, this information is sufficient to enable the host brain to "run" a copy of the Yahweh persona, and through evangelism, transmit the Yahweh persona to others. When a Christian wears a "What Would Jesus Do" bracelet, this amounts to an instruction set:

1)Run Jesus Persona Program.

2) Consult its decisionmaking process.

3) Act in accordance with Jesus Persona Program's decision.

Through reading of the Bible, listening to sermons, etc., a Christian is able to build a model of Jesus' personality, values, etc. in their brain that is sufficient to "operate" their body as a secondary (or, arguably, primary, if the Christian is truly devout) personality, similar to what takes place in a person with "multiple personality disorder." The important distinction between an ordinary MPD persona and a "god" is that the "god" is copied in an entire community of hosts, rather than just one. The "god" is able to evolve on three levels:

1) Copying errors and "mutations." Since no two "believers" will have the exact same mental model of the god, the interaction of the different models within a community of god-hosts will provide the god with new information and adaptability just as mutations and variations of traits give a species new information and adaptability.

2) "Contradictions" in the software transmission system (e.g.the "scriptures" which are analogous to a CD-ROM). For example, it is easy to find in the Bible instructions for believers to be peaceful, loving, and submit to authorities or even aggressors ("Turn the other cheek"). It is also easy to find instructions to hate and make war (Entire books of the Hebrew Bible; "I came not to bring peace, but a sword," the doctrine of Hell, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament ). When the Yahweh-community possesses sufficient force, it is able to (and frequently has) repress rival memes. When theYahweh-community is faced with overwhelming force from rivals (as itwas in the era when Christianity was founded), it can switch to appeasement/adaptation and a devout pacifism that persuades the rivals of its moral superiority. Thus, in either case, the Yahweh meme is pre-adapted to survive. And, since both sets of protocols are preserved in "Holy Scripture," the community can switch strategies whenever it is advantageous, as Christianity did once Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. [*]

3) Conscious choice on the part of a host or hosts made while "running" the god-program. This can manifest in any number of ways. Whenever an ancient Hebrew prophet proclaimed "Thus saith theLord!" followed by a pronouncement relevant to a new situation (the appearance of Babylonian armies, etc.), he was "running" the god-program and giving it, through the use of his brain-hardware, the ability to think, feel, and react to the situation in real-time. Since a 'god' may be viewed as an actual, sentient program borrowing the brain-hardware of its hosts (and able to parallel-process to some extent as well via inter-communication between its hosts), it is far more resilient than a mere "dumb virus" (as described in the article) would be.

*This is a somewhat over-simplified description. During the Jewish Revolts against Roman rule, the Yahweh meme basically chose both stategies. The "warlike" path was represented by the rebels themselves, who fought to drive off the pagan Romans and establish a messianic Jewish theocracy. However, many Jews either benefited from Roman rule (the elites), or preferred a more tolerant, cosmopolitan approach than the strict fundamentalism of the rebels. The Romans exterminated the warlike Jews, leaving those willing to submit alive. This submit-to-the-Gentiles version was predominant in the Jewish community until after the Holocaust, which demonstrated that obediance to Gentile authorities and quiet endurance of persecution was no guarantee of survival. The result: a well-armed State of Israel that embodies a version of Judaism that is more than willing to fight.

The early Christian community may have experienced a similar evolutionary branching. Robert Eisenman's book James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls provides compelling evidence that the Jerusalem Church founded by Jesus and led by his brother James was a militant, populist sect aiming to expel Rome and restore the Davidic monarchy. According to Eisenman, this Church was closely tied to the Essenes (authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls) and the Jewish revolutionary movement in general.

It was rivalled by the pro-Roman Pauline sect that sought to abolish the Jewish law for Christians and welcome Gentiles into the Church without requiring them to become circumcised or adopt Jewish laws and customs. Eisenman proposes that James "the Just," brother to Jesus, and his successor to both leadership of the Church and the Davidic throne, was so revered by the Jewish revolutioonary movement that his martyrdom touched off the first Jewish Revolt in 66 C.E.

As with Judaism, Rome exterminated this early militant faction of Christianity, while the pacifist variant (Paul and his followers) survived...until Constantine provided the Christian version of the Yahweh Meme with Legions to enforce its will, beginning the era of Christian persecution of Pagans and "heretics" (i.e. mutant versions of the Meme).


Blogger P.T. Galt said...

An interesting aspect of this memetic approach to theology is that it provides an operational (i.e. non-contradictory and demonstrable) definition of the term "god" previously lacking in theology. Ironically, by describing God (the capital "G" referencing the god of the Abrahamic religions as opposed to the generic concept of a god) as a memetic intelligence, it is possible to:

1) State that God exists as a rational hypothesis.

2) Explain how he can be non-local (i.e. worshippers in Rome, Italy and Dallas, Texas can "experience his presence" simultaneously), unaging, intangible, and "dwell within the believer" without violating any generalized principles of physics or calling upon vague or undefined pseudo-concepts (e.g. "spirit").

3) Demonstrate that God can, in fact, be found "in his Word." The Bible comes close to openly stating that God is a memetic intelligence coded in its text ("In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God" --John 1:1)"

5:27 AM  
Blogger Scott A. Edwards said...

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5:09 AM  
Blogger Scott A. Edwards said...

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12:46 PM  
Blogger P.T. Galt said...

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9:05 PM  
Anonymous Martin Ciupa said...

A genuine interesting viewpoint.

Some folks see Memetics as a way to "attack" Theist positions, in ways that Genetics was seen to do earlier in the dialog between Science and Religion. But maybe it's not so.

Afterall if Memetics is "true", and it is truth that will set us free, then Theists need to accomodate what it brings to their worldview.

E.g., just as Genetics could be seen as Gods chosen mechanism for implementing a robust design for evolving intelligent beings, capable of understanding the purpose behind their "design" over time, which Pauline Theology says is to be united with Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

Memetics could also be seen as a useful theory for understanding how God could have used memes to help build traditions that will enable civilizations to evolve, to support these intelligent beings, limited in their mortality, more effectively to fulfill their God given purpose.

Indeed it could provide a method for seeing how an evolutionary mechanism in the "Body of Christ", i.e., the Church, can work in a rational way, extending the efficacy of individuals who have particular talents and insights of short lived individuals to others dynamically over time, evolving traditions that are more and more Christ like. A "Spiritual Gift" as discussed in 1 Corinthians 12 perhaps.

Something to think about.

3:42 AM  
Blogger P.T. Galt said...


Your approach has a major problem IMO, in that it still seems to rely on the concept of a "God" *external* (though perhaps also immanent) in Universe that "uses" genetics and memetics to "create" (evolve) intelligent beings and get them to do his bidding.

This approach leaves the central question unanswered: what is a "god?" And also the corollary: how does a "god" "use" something like genetics or memetics to accomplish some pre-ordained end, such as getting humans to be more "Christ-like" rather than, say, getting intelligent cephalopods to be more "Buddha-like" or even "Tentacles-That-Rescue"-like? [1]

In other words, your central explanatory mechanism--"God"--remains undefined and unverified, somehow interacting with matter yet remaining undetectable by science, even in principle (otherwise, an experiment could be conducted).

The memetic-god approach defines a "god" (or "goddess") as a transferrable set of *information* that interacts with the material world by getting itself copied into human brains, then effectively taking control of human hosts. It can then use these hosts to perpetuate and amplify itself, by building temples and cathedrals, organizing to fight the hosts of other "gods/goddesses," and transmitting the information to more hosts.

IOW, the power of this approach is that it makes it possible to assert that "gods" exist, with many of the attributes attributed to them by theists (intangible, non-aging, non-local, etc.), without relying on undefined and unverified concepts.

It also explains why a "god" would have anthropomorphic motivations and emotions. "He" or "she" lives as a personality in human bodies, and thus employs the same physical neural structure, hormones, and body (with the same needs) we have. The difference between a "god" and and the rest of us is that a "god" is not limited to a single body/brain system.

The traditional view that a "god/goddess" is an entity composed of some unknown transcendant "stuff" (usually referred to as "spirit") existing primarily in some unknown realm or dimension entirely unlike our Universe (the "spirit world," "Heaven," "the Duat," etc.) virtually requires that "gods" be far more alien in nature than just about anything our science fiction describes.

Taking the Abrahamic "God" as an example, why would a supra-cosmic indestructable entity of unlimited intelligence and power be interested in ruling as "King of Kings" over a bunch of humans, and become so enraged if they reject his rule that he is willing to torture them forever?

Such an entity, if it existed, would have no needs, certainly not for "servants," when it can produce anything it desires with a thought (assuming such an entity would even have desires).

A memetic "God," on the other hand, has every reason to gather human worshippers, and threaten them with every imaginable punishment for refusing to worship: worshippers are his means of survival. He would also have motivation to convince those worshippers that he was infinitely grandiose and powerful, so they would accept that rebellion or rejection of him was futile and certain to get them in Big Trouble if they tried.

The "God is infinitely powerful" meme is certainly one a memetic God would use to assemble his "Body" (the Church, i.e. his community of hosts) and make them more "Christ-like," "Christ" being defined as the perfect model of what a host ought to be.

The New Testament persona "Christ" himself is arguably a meme, and, judging by the number of Christians in the world, a highly useful one for building a collective Body of hosts.


1. "Tentacles-That-Rescue" is a name for a hypothetical squid messiah. :)

5:07 AM  
Anonymous Martin Ciupa said...

There are a lot of points you bring out.

For now I merely wish to focus on my assertion that genetics and memetics, as rational constructs, can be used to support either Atheist or Theist positions.

They are rational mechanisms that have a certain explanatory power for certain natural phenomena.

Ulitmately their use in argumentation about ones "Belief in God" will be futile in my opinion. That argument I suspect will always be decided as a matter of personal choice, through the excercise of a personal leap of faith.

If God is a supernatural reality, we have to be prepared to consider metaphysical argumentation, and not outlaw it a piori.

6:01 AM  
Blogger P.T. Galt said...

Martin wrote:

"Ulitmately their use in argumentation about ones 'Belief in God' will be futile in my opinion. That argument I suspect will always be decided as a matter of personal choice, through the excercise of a personal leap of faith."

If that is so, then there is no more reason to argue about one's 'Belief in God' (or 'Goddess' or 'Gods' or nonbelief in same) than there is to argue over whether we ought to like Hawaiian pizza more than Pepperoni. Let's say someone came along and said that he liked Hawaiian pizza as a matter of personal taste (and hence his preference is not subject to dispute), but that anyone who likes Pepperoni is evil and deserves to roast in the Great Pizza Oven in the Sky forever--and that perhaps it might be legitimate to roast him in an earthly one now. How much difficulty would you have in rejecting that aspect of his beliefs, even while having no difficulty with his personal preference for Hawaiian?

Martin wrote:

"If God is a supernatural reality, we have to be prepared to consider metaphysical argumentation, and not outlaw it a piori."

Again, you contradict yourself. "God" (however you choose to define him/her/it/them) is either a reality "supernatural" or otherwise, or not. It may well be that we do not know for sure, or that we have some evidence in favor and some against, or some for (yet, not enough to be conclusive) and none (yet) against, leading to some estimate of probability as to how likely it is that "God" is a reality.

None of this is a subjective matter of choice. If you're walking down a freeway, there are either cars on it, or not (or you don't know because there's fog or maybe you're blind). However, the reality of the situation will ultimately have measurable and important consequences for you.

Even if you don't know whether there are cars or not and don't know yet how to get the right answer, the question is not a matter of subjective choice.

Likewise with "God." If the "God" described in the Christian Bible exists as a reality, there are certain consequences. E.g. Mahatma Gandhi will be presently weeping and gnashing his teeth in the eternal flames, since he made the wrong leap of faith.

OTOH, if Allah is a reality, then Mohammed Atta is enjoying himself in the company of seventy virgins, while the good Christians that were on the plane with him are getting their bums raped by the demon Iblis in Hell.

The only way your theory of subjective choice works is if there are no actual consequences in reality for choosing one religion over another. If this is so, then all religions are equally true or equally false because there is no detectable difference between a "true" religion and a "false" one.

It could also be so that all religions are "true" to some extent, some perhaps more than others. For example, both Hindu meditation and Christian prayer could perhaps lead to 'experiences of the divine' that are equally valid. IOW, the 'divine' in this case could be something that is neither "Christian" nor "Hindu" in nature, but which can be experienced via techniques for achieving alternate states of consciousness.

In this case, it would not be the doctrines of the religions that are true per se, but the techniques. Just as a pizza or steak and potatoes can lead to the experience of a full stomach, perhaps Christian prayer and shamanic peyote trips could both lead to experiences of 'the divine.'

Note that in this model, an experimental approach becomes possible. How is the "experience of the divine" you get from Transcendental Meditation different from the one you get with LSD or praying the Rosary? How do the experiences differ from experimenter to experimenter? Which aspects are 'repeatable' across all experimenters and belief systems (experimental protocols) and which aspects are matters of personal choice or unsupported dogma? What does this tell us about "the divine?" What does this tell us about our experiencing mechanism? How can we determine if what we're experiencing is an external reality or a brain-generated illusion?

Though I have not yet read his work, as I understand it, Ken Wilber has created a massive "cross-mapping" of spiritual experience (as well as philosophy, politics, etc.) to generate his "Integral Philosophy."

Such an experimental/Integral approach seems to me to be the best way to determine if there is a "divine" aspect of reality, and what it is.

Regarding "supernatural reality" and "metaphysical argumentation" (whatever you mean by that), you're right: there is no need to rule them out a priori.

However, if you're presenting, as a truth clam (rather than a matter of personal taste) that there's such a thing as "supernatural reality" and that "metaphysical argumentation" is a valid means of supporting your claim, then you have a burden of proof.

It is up to you to define what you mean by "supernatural" so as to differentiate it from the "natural" and anything that may be neither "natural" nor "supernatural" (e.g. the "subnatural?").

It is also up to you to define "metaphysical argumentation" and demonstrate that it has validity as a means of arriving at understanding of reality.

If you fail to do so, no one is "ruling them out"--you just have yet to "rule them in." This same approach applies equally to unicorns, leprechauns, Higgs bosons, "dark matter," and anything else anyone wants to assert is objectively real.

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Martin Ciupa said...

Again a lot of issues you bring up (at length), and some are classic mistakes for folks attacking Theists.

For example ... It is not the position of many post modern Christians that people who think differently and adopt other creeds (including Atheism) are necessarily "evil". Many Christian denominations, e.g., the biggest one Roman Catholcism, are these days inclusive in their "salvation" position of other worldviews and see that other Christian denominations, Juadaism, Islam, and people who seek God in good faith have some form of salvation.

And for folks that are Atheists, or Pantheists (such as I feel you are moving towards in some of your articles) I certainly do not blanket characterise as evil, just misguided perhaps, searchers for truth who are still on a journey.

In terms of what salvation may actually look like (no one really knows - we all "look through a glass darkly"), my view is more like the vision of C S Lewis in "The Great Divorce".

It's as if you a picking on an assumption of "ole' time regligion" as your target for criticsim. Things have moved on.

For example ... If we make a central Theist platform that God is Love, Just and True. Then argumentation that particular religious traditions do not exhibit those qualities, then it is an argument for a need of further exegesis and/or reform for these religous traditions. The memetic argument can come into useful play here (hence my interest in your blog). This is very much what is happening in the post modern theistic world right now.

For further discussion on this I offer you to a good reference "When Religion Becomes Evil: Five warining Signs" by Richard Kimball.

Its really important for seekers of truth such as yourself to understand these issues well. There is so much going on with Fundamentalism and Spiritual revival that it behoves all folks of good faith to equip themselves with an understanding of the post modern formation of the Theistic position - its moving, and its dangerous to adopt old assumptions and policy on how to handle some of the more dangerous reactionary fundamentalist forms that exist right now, e.g., Militant Islam, Arguments over ID in Education, Global Pentacostal Revivalism, the Secular/Religous Political Rift, etc.

You seem to be locked into a view of reality that is limiting (and it self-serves your emerging worldview). Arguing from the premise that only natural phenomenon can be logicaly dealt with, presupposes metaphysical discussion meaningless. Such Logical Positivist positions will result in the despair of meaning that Camus described in the Myth of Sisyphus, where you will roll up a hill your arguments of stone, only to see them roll back down again, over and over till the end of time. The memetic argument is an intersting and udeful one, but it will not bridge the "gaps".

Finally in this respect I refer you to the philosopher Kierkegaard who perhaps first explained the absurdity of certain religous truths being approached from rationality alone. And first discussed the necessary "Leaps of Faith" that religous worldviews require to bridge the gaps.

Good Luck on your journey!

9:20 PM  

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