Religions as memes: Does memetics explain anything?

Susan Blackmore

Explaining Religion Conference, Bristol, September 2-3, 2010


Religions can be described as co-adapted meme-complexes, or memeplexes, in which the constituent memes propagate together because they are more successful as a group than as individual ideas or practices. On this view, religions are selfish memeplexes that thrive not primarily for the sake of human genes, individual people or groups, but of themselves.

I shall deal briefly with some of the frequent misunderstandings of memetics (e.g. that the whole idea is based on an analogy with genes), and with some standard criticisms of memetics, before asking two questions. The first is whether memetics is really different from dual inheritance theories, and whether meme-gene coevolution is really different from theories of gene-culture coevolution. The second is whether this way of looking at religions has any advantages or provides any useful scientific work.

As an example I consider the work of Russian historian Ilya Nosyrev, from Moscow State University, who shows how thinking memetically can explain many features of the evolution of religions and cults. His analyses show how monasteries evolve because of the differential fitness of different religious lifestyles in the memepool, or how castration and suicide cults thrive memetically even though they ultimately destroy themselves.

This and other examples allow us to explore whether memetics has any advantages over other theories.