We have evidence for ritual burials dating back to the late Palaeolithic, so we can say that for the past one hundred thousand years at least, people have been running one of a set of rich memeplexes that we can class as ‘religions’.
Curiosity is natural for a foraging species like ours, and even Homo Habilis must have wondered about big questions like ‘where did we come from?’, ‘what are those lights in the sky?’ and ‘what happens when we die?’ As we are natural imitators, it easy to see how religions arose: any person that could provide comfort by answering those difficult questions would obviously accrue followers and therefore useful things like food and mates.
‘Good’ religions are not those with any inherent merit but ones that were easy to spread and protected themselves.The Shakers may be a wholly admirable group of people, but they do not evangelise and do not breed, and at the time of writing there were two of them left.
It's just another memeplex
Now that we know about the structure of memeplexes let's look at some of the fundamental features of religions:
- We know that storage improves copy fidelity, so we should not be surprised that pretty much all religions have some kind of holy book. Daily devotions reinforce the meme and allow the meme's guardians (priests) to check how well it has been embedded;
- Most religions contain self-protection mechanisms that punish dissent with disproportionate violence, generally called something like 'heresy' or 'apostasy';
- They contain mechanisms which suppress questioning and rational debate, as this might lead to defection from the meme. Adherents are told that all they need is 'faith';
- The message that the devotions cause sins to be forgiven and that any other course will lead to an eternity of suffering is also a reinforcing meme, and conveniently the rewards for this cannot be tested until the adherents have died;
- The interaction of these memes means that religions have strong immune system - so strong, in fact, that many of them have carried forward ideas that should have been abandoned at the end of the Bronze Age;
- Finally, they all have mechanisms which reward transmission of the meme (evangelism) and almost all have instructions to pass the meme onto their children.
This last element - the instruction to pass the meme onto children - is particularly interesting. Some religions frown on contraception while others promote large families: and it should come as no surprise that strongly religious people tend to have higher levels of fertility (see Rowthorn, 2011). But all believe in the religious education of children. That the meme must be implanted as the ‘truth’ at a tender age is significant, as young children have not yet developed a memetic immune system in the form of a questioning brain (covered later). The religions that have survived thus have a strong ‘copy me’ instruction.
In fact, religions are generally structured like a really unpleasant version of the chain letters we looked at in Memetics 101 - 'pass them on, or suffer'. Religions were created by men and subject to directed and accidental evolution, just like any other complex set of memes. There is no inherent truth in any of them.
If the atheists out there are feeling smug, they shouldn’t. I accept that their belief system does not require the existence of miracles or supernatural beings, and requires that evidence be tested and debated rather than just believed. But atheism is just another belief system, and it also contains core texts, clergy (such as Professor Dawkins), heresy and evangelism memes. We may or may not be children of a god, but we are certainly all children of a memeplex.