Religious Belief: A Mind Virus That Preys on Fear


“The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational Inquiry” – Richard Dawkins

Memetics is an outgrowth of evolutionary psychology that was introduced as a mental content theory by Dr. Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene.” It is directly connected to Darwinian evolution and, in a nutshell, it has to do with how information, called “units,” are replicated and transferred within a given culture. There is a debate among scientists regarding how the replication of these units of information control human behavior and culture and when Dawkins coined the term, he did so in a speculative spirit. However, memes and their connection to human carriers with respect to the phenomenon of religious belief is also supported by other prominent scientists, as well as the renowned philosopher, Daniel Dennett.


A Virus Of The Mind…

In 1991, Richard Dawkins wrote an essay titled “Viruses of the Mind” which used memetics to explain the various characteristics of organised religions. Susan Blackmore, a physiologist who also studies memetics, agrees with Dawkins and Dennett with the definition of a meme being whatever is transferred from one person to another. Memes are replicators with variations within, they compete in our memories for space and for the opportunity to be recopied, but they are not carbon copies. As is with Darwinian evolution, not all of the variants are able to survive because nobody learns exactly the same way as the next person, so they are actually imitations, not copies. The ideas might be the same or similar, but the expression will change and there will be variants of different memes added. This is akin to mutation in Darwinian evolution.

However, mutations in the evolution of certain memes are very high, and are possible even in first generation imitations. In his book, “A Devil’s Chaplain, Dawkins identifies and explains the differences between the informative memetic process and the controversial memetic process. The cultural process is based on an idea, action or expression with high variances and the informative is more of a self-correcting memetic process, which is highly resistant to evolutionary mutation.


Written By: Al Stefanelli
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  1. are memes socioeconomic, cultural? And if so, then the internet has widen the spread of memes.

  2. I love the meme meme. Mind you, I loved it when I first came across it in Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, where it went by the name of “patterns of quality”: i.e., a recurring and recognisable entity which could be physical or conceptual. But you can’t keep a good meme down!

  3. We need healthy memes, like white blood cells…

    Like “face palm” to display how we feel about creationists, or “TFSM”, etc.

    Or “get an education” to combat “god particle”.

  4. But I think like minded people still flock together and reinforce each others memes. Both negative and positive memes have gained momentum since the internet. Socialization has definitely changed since the internet, especially when you are a free thinker stuck in a local community as a minority.

  5. I’m going to avoid the issue of memes and concentrate on a few other points

    1) I quite presume that religion is a development of our internal logical system which is akin to our linguistic abilities. All living creatures need a logical system to determine edibility. That’s basic to the first self-replicator. As others have pointed out, logic demands an explanation for the unknown, and hence the origins of religion. It’s so logical to have religion, everyone has one. Or had one, at any rate.

    2) Thinking is done at a subconscious level. Consciousness is a refinement of creatures as input/output devises. We evolved the illusion of consciousness in order to have real time reaction to external events.

    3) Evolution is accomplished at the species level, not the individual level. If a mutation does not benefit the species, no matter how it benefits a particular individual it will not be retained by the species. The illusion of consciousness gives support to the illusion of individuality, that we are separate creatures from each other. In truth, we are merely protoplasmic extensions of our species. This way the species can continually slough off worn out parts and replace them with new ones, constantly renewing itself. Pretty clever, eh?

    4) The kinship bond is an extension of the herd instinct. The herd instinct is the tendency for all members of a species to behave in essentially the same pattern. This is absolutely necessary for survival. To not adhere to your species’ behavior patterns means isolation and death. It’s why ostracizing is so effective. More than the narrow kinship bond, the herd instinct corals the strays.

    5) Fortunately, evolution provides a way out. Eventually, our logical systems figured out that a god wasn’t a good explanation for what was happening around us and we began to work on more practical answers. Well, actually, we’d been working on practical answers from the beginning; we were simply getting a better idea of what was practical. That was the evolution of science out of religion. At one time, only one person understood there was no god. Now hundreds of millions do. And fortunately, those hundreds of millions are better equipped to survive than the faithful simply because they have faith in science and the human mind. There will come a time when, like the last speaker of a forgotten language, the last true believer will pass from the scene. Evolution determined that a long time ago.

    6) You want some more good news? The population explosion is over. For sure, it’s going to get a bunch more crowded before it levels off, but in less than a hundred years the entire world population will start to go down. Malthus was wrong. People have started having less babies all on their own, as if the species was coming to a decision about how big to get. Talk about cloud computing.

    7) More good news? Violence is on the way out. Has been for forty thousand years and there’s no reason to suspect it won’t continue that way. Now that the pressure’s off and we’re heading into space, I think we’ll see an end to war on this planet. They get fewer and fewer each year. In my lifetime—and that’s 70 years—the wars have shrunk dramatically. Compare WWII with Vietnam. Then compare Vietnam with Afghanistan. All wars are terrible, but they are getting smaller and less deadly. A few more hundred years and they might disappear altogether. Maybe sooner if we can figure out our distribution problems; and there’s no reason we can’t do that, either. That only leaves us greed to work on, and, hell, that shouldn’t be that hard, should it?

  6. I forgot to add that the continuance of religion in the face of science is due to its usefulness in controlling people. Religion, essentially, uses the herd instinct to direct mass behavior. Patriotism does the same thing: controls herd instinct by defining the herd instinct.

  7. Religion is a placebo drug and can be very addictive,it can and does cause death.It should carry a legal warning to be avoided,and help offered for the emotionally weak addicts.

  8. I have to agree. Now that I no longer believe in God, nothing really frightens me anymore. I simply cannot imagine anything scarier.

  9. Religious memes press all the right buttons that is why they are so hard to wipe out.

    The meme carriers have psychological issues that protect the meme from attack.  They need to feel special, have the protection and attention of a powerful supervisory being, are invariably scared of being alone or exposed to danger or uncertainty.  Their illusions of being a greater work than other species need to be shored up, they need to pose with fake knowledge to appear intelligent because science is beyond them and they’re basically incapable of rational thought.  

    The cost of hard to fake acts of commitment (diet, clothing, incantations, asceticism) and constraint on their freedom is insufficient to innoculate them.

    Religion presses all the right buttons for them. 

  10. Makes sense to me. I cottoned on to the cognitive dissonance aspect of religion many many moons ago. 

    Only one thing though: “Reinforcement of the virus comes through controled behaviour such as…control of the human reproductive process.”. With RC members – pun intended – it’s out of control in a never ending drive to increase numbers, which leads to lies, ignorance and poverty.

  11. Whoa, whoa, whoa there! I disagree with most of your unsupported over-generalisations but the topic is memes. Got it?

  12. The bottom line is that it works on some, not on others. My sister and I were both raised the same way. She is an orthodox Jew and I am a hardcore Atheist. She inherited the “placebo” gene and I didn’t. It is a complete exercise in futility trying to point out to her that all her ritualistic prayers have no effect whatsoever on the space/time continuum. Our brains are simply hardwired differently. Whereas, no amount of nurturing could change my basic nature, she was designed to soak up bullshít like a sponge.

  13. Seriously, how big of a leap is it from a screeching, dominant male chimp banging on an old five gallon bucket with a stick to a small town fundamentalist Baptist preacher screeching and hammering a Bible with his fist?  Dang, where’d I put my lightning rod?

  14. “It allows the religionist to exist in a perfectly rational way in many other aspects of their existence in society while the infected area of the mind is stuck in a cyclical delusion.”Perfect!  I see this in Texas every day.  I’ll be having a seemingly rational conversation with someone in business when, suddenly and with no warning, Jesus comes ridin’ in on his golden chariot and the conversation instantly becomes utterly insane.  My response is typically “Gotta go, have a nice day, ya’ll” …

  15. “One; the believer will gravitate more and more toward a level of fundamentalism that will cause them to become increasingly disassociated with the real world around them. “
    One thing that isn’t discussed much is the prevalence of relatively mild psychotic behaviors exhibited by fundie wingnuts.  I’ve seen numerous examples here in Texas of fundies, including my own parents, who believe they’re being watched, followed, wiretapped, etc., by the FBI, CIA, police, government, etc.

  16. 3) Evolution is accomplished at the species level

    Nope.  Read “The Selfish Gene”.

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