Will secularism survive?

Contribution to a “Symposium in print”, Free Inquiry, 25, No 6. 36-7, 2005

Secularism is a loose complex of memes competing in a tough world for space in people’s heads. Its value lies in its truth and flexibility; it changes with scientific progress, and encourages inquiry and reasoned argument.

Unfortunately these are not always the qualities that make for winning memes. There is tough competition to occupy the niche of a belief system that gives meaning and moral guidance, and answers questions about human nature and purpose. Almost everyone on the planet is infected with a religion at a very early age, before they even encounter secularism. These religions are well-structured memeplexes, honed by centuries of memetic evolution to fit neatly with human cognitive weaknesses, and to protect themselves with plenty of dirty tricks.

The basic structure of religions is simple: an instruction to pass on the whole memeplex, wrapped in a protective coat of lures, threats and promises. It does not matter that the central ideas are false – such as a creator God who has a benign plan for human beings, the existence of souls, reincarnation, life after death, or miracles – because these are all linked with beautiful music and buildings, altruistic deeds, and uplifting feelings. If these aren’t enough, the fearsome threats and untestable promises keep the memeplex in place.

Secularism can never use such tricks while remaining rooted in science, truth and open inquiry. So will it survive? Perhaps memetic research could find out whether there is a threshold percentage of believers in a population below which religions cannot come back, or an environment in which their tricks will fail. My guess is that in Europe we are now fairly immune to the return of serious religious belief. But looking from the outside at the USA I can only wonder.