My chapter in:
Science and Religion: Five Questions.
Ed. Gregg, Caruso, Automatic Press, 2014
Like science, the Buddha’s ideas challenge everything we like to believe.
That is lost in the mists of time. What I do remember as a young child is being fascinated by big questions and those questions were both scientific and religious. Who am I? Where am I? What am I? Why am I here? What’s the meaning of it all?
I have one particular memory, a sort of flashbulb memory of walking around the pond at my parents’ house, when I must have been about six or seven, thinking about the nature of heat. What on earth could heat be? I remember holding my hand out in front of me and thinking, “My hand’s warm and the pond is cold. What is going from one to the other?” and not knowing and thinking that it was maybe some kind of wiggling of my hands. I don’t know if I had heard about heat being energy—I have no idea—but that sort of thing fascinated me as a child.
And also I had huge arguments with my mother because I had religious phases and anti-religious phases and my mother was a Christian. I would tell her, “Yeah, but there couldn’t be a God because if he did exist, why does he do bad things?” and all those classic arguments.
I suppose in a way the answer is that I’ve always wondered about science and religion, but then as a student in 1970 I had a most dramatic experience that changed my life, and I mean that quite sincerely. Almost all the research I’ve ever done since then has depended in some way upon that experience. I have written about it in at least two of my books and online, and I still don’t really know what to call it.
In the beginning I called it “astral projection.” Then I learned the phrase “out-of-body experience.” Then when the term “near-death experience” was invented, which was in the mid-70s, I called it a near-death experience. In fact I wasn’t actually near death, and yet my experience included almost all the features of a classic near-death experience. But I could also call it an “exceptional human experience,” which is Rhea White’s term, or I could call it a “mystical experience,” which it certainly was. The latter phases of it had many of the features of classic mystical experiences.
That experience, in which I seemed to be out of my body observing somewhere else, made me absolutely sure that I had a soul or a spirit and that my soul or my astral body had left my physical body and gone to other realms. Yet I was at Oxford University studying physiology and psychology. So this horrendous clash between what I knew from my own experience and what I was learning in my science absolutely electrified my mind. It was wonderful. I was really enjoying my degree and yet this clash made me absolutely determined to prove to the world that there really is a soul or a spirit; that there really is life after death; there really is telepathy, clairvoyance, and all of those paranormal things, which seemed to me to be obviously true based on my own experience.
That sort of confidence lasted a few days or a few weeks, but even during the experience itself my skeptical nature was creeping out and asking, “Yes, but is this really so?” “Are those roofs I’m seeing really the roofs and the gutters around this building?” and the next morning I looked, and they weren’t right and so my skepticism started to creep in. And to cut a long story short, over the years I went into research in the paranormal, did a Ph.D. in parapsychology, did lots of research and finally became very, very skeptical to the point that I am as sure as I can be—which is not 100%—that there are no paranormal phenomena, that there is no soul or spirit, and there is no personal life after death.
That experience really underlies, I would say, all my subsequent theorizing about science and religion. In a way, that’s the answer to your question.
No, but I want to qualify that. First of all, I’d like to go through each of these topics in turn because I think the answer is different for each of them. But also, I think we need to be clear what we mean by “religion.” Do we mean the great monotheistic religions? Do we mean specific religions? Do we mean religious tendencies or religiosity, or do we perhaps even mean something that one might call spirituality that might not involve either gods or rituals or other features of the classic religions?
I will try to answer with respect to the religions that I know something about, because I don’t know a lot about all religions, obviously. I know quite a lot about Christianity because I was brought up in the Church of England. I was christened. I was confirmed. I went to church a lot. I can still sing you lots of hymns and know all the words. I could probably recite most of the communion service by heart—I discovered that when my 80-year-old mother was very demented and unable to go to church on her own. So one day I took her to communion, and I found all the words just poured out of my mouth as though it hadn’t been thirty years since I last went to a service.
I know quite a lot about Buddhism from a long training in Zen. I am not a Buddhist. I’ve not signed up, promised anything or taken the vows, but I have been practicing and training in Zen for more than thirty years now. I know just a little about Islam from having studied it for my own interest, just by reading, and rather less about Hinduism and much less about all kinds of other religions. So I am not speaking about them all.
Now, let’s tackle these questions you ask about.
Cosmology. I’m not a physicist, I’m not a cosmologist, and I don’t know where the scientific answers stand today, but I don’t think we have a generally accepted answer to how and why the universe came into being. Even so, it doesn’t help to invent a god who did the job. In the monotheistic religions this raises the classic infinite regress – Who created God? – as well as many other well-known problems. But there still remains the big question of why there is something rather than nothing. This is the sort of question one can think about religiously and spiritually and scientifically. I think the answer is not totally clear with cosmology. At least in my mind it isn’t.
The other parts of your question I would like to give firmer answers to from my own perspective. As far as biology is concerned, science and religion are absolutely not compatible. In particular, this is true for Christianity, Islam and any religion which specifies a God who made us.
I have particular anger and despair about the Christian notion that God created us in his own image. You could take a rather subtle spiritual sort of notion of what that means and say “oh, well, it’s for God’s good qualities that we are made in his image. He wants us to love and forgive as he does; to aspire to spiritual perfection.” But when you read the Bible or the Koran, you find that God encourages hostility to out-groups, glorifies war, approves of rape, and behaves in countless ways that we consider immoral today. He displays love and wrath, rejection and compassion, forgiveness and revenge in a soup of contradictions. All this may sum up our human failings rather well but it is far from what Christians mean when they say we are made ‘in His image.’
A more down to earth meaning of ‘made in his image,’ entails what human beings look like, how our bodies are constructed and how we behave. The science of biology gives us answers. We know that we evolved along with all other living things on this planet. We may not know every detail of the processes involved but we know who our ancestors were, what evolutionary pressures were involved and where all the different genes come from. Religion cannot provide any such meaningful answers.
Then one can ask such difficult questions as: If God did create us, why on earth did he make such a horrible mess of it? Why are we so weak and so prone to becoming ill? Why are our backs not designed to carry so much weight? Why are our eyes not as sharp as an owl’s? Why do our immune systems sometimes turn in on their own bodies? Why is childbirth so painful and dangerous when other animals find it easy and painless? Biology gives meaningful answers to all such questions. No religion offers any viable explanations at all. The Christian idea that we are made in God’s image is simply ridiculous.
So my answer to your question about biology is no – and for a profound reason. In both Christianity and Islam God had a plan for us. He knew what sort of creatures we were to be and created us according to his plan. Evolution, by contrast, has no plan and no foresight. Had conditions been slightly different at any point, we would have turned out differently, or not appeared at all. This is its wonderful power – and where the deepest incompatibility between science and religion lies. When we look around the manmade world it seems just obvious that design requires a designer; that you have to know how to make something in order to make it. It seems just crazy that beautiful and intelligent creations could appear through the aimless processes of copying with variation and selection. Yet this is what Darwin realized. Design is indeed possible without a designer; designerless designs are all around us. We are designerless designs ourselves. There is no need for a designer God.
When it comes to ethics, I say no as well. Religions are often touted as providing a moral compass for their followers, but the morality displayed in the Old Testament or in the Koran is mind-numbingly gruesome. In the Old Testament, the Lord sends plagues of locusts, maggots and festering boils to his enemies. He condones selling girls into slavery and murders children. In one particularly nasty episode, “Moses’ anger waxed hot” when the people disobeyed the Lord and made a golden calf. So he ordered his followers to kill their own brothers, friends and neighbours, “and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.” (Exodus 32:28). Similarly the Koran threatens horrific punishments to those who reject the faith, including death, crucifixion, and having their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides (5:33). It teaches that unbelief is worse than killing, and all unbelievers deserve to die.
The many stories of violence, theft and oppression in both ‘Holy’ books are understandable since the books were written by people, and the stories they tell expose common aspects of human nature. In that sense, there’s a certain kind of compatibility between science and religion here. For example, science shows us that we humans are a social species having a common ancestor with chimpanzees, and other previous common ancestors with other social species. This helps us to understand a lot about our behaviour, including why we are sometimes altruistic and sometimes the reverse; why we are kind to our relatives and love our family members yet often shun outsiders; why racism is so easy to provoke given that there are genetic reasons for preferring people who are closely related to you or look like you. Psychology, neuroscience and memetics all provide more insight into how our cultures evolve and why we behave as we do. But it is science that explains all this, not religion.
The violence and horror of these ‘Holy’ books makes sense when you see Christianity and Islam as self-perpetuating memeplexes. Not only do they piggy-back on the human nature that evolution has given us but they cleverly exploit our minds to get themselves copied down countless generations. They can be seen as viruses of the mind that essentially consist of a set of ‘copy-me’ instructions backed up by all sorts of protective memes. So they urge people to copy all the senseless details of stories, rituals and doctrine, and then back that up with terrifying threats and false promises. And in case people don’t believe the crazy threats and promises, these in turn are backed up with admonitions to have faith rather than doubt, not to ask questions about invisible heavens and hells and, above all, not to laugh. Laughing at the idea of a god who rewards his servants with a heaven full of sexually available virgins is surely going to weaken its power. So then laughing needs to be punished as well.
Using the tools of science we can understand how and why the world’s nastiest religions evolved the way they did. And this understanding is incompatible with the teachings of those religions.
The next part of your question was about minds, brains and souls. I’m not a materialist, but I am a monist. I think when it comes to minds, brains and souls, we are never going to understand any of them by taking a dualist view. As Dan Dennett long ago said, “Dualism is forlorn,” andalmost every living philosopher would agree with him. If you separate the world into mind and body, or subjective things and objective things, or things you can measure and things that are only in your experience, then you have a problem. There’s no easy way to understand how one relates to the other. If you take the Cartesian dualist view that mind and brain are completely distinct kinds of stuff, then you can’t understand why putting a drug in your brain changes the way you see the world and you can’t understand why your thoughts seem to relate to what your body does. This kind of dualism is hopeless.
I’ll dismiss the idea of a soul completely because there is no separate entity that could count as a soul.
As for mind and brain, I think of mind loosely as what the brain does or an illusion constructed as part of the brain’s job. What I think is particularly interesting—something you might add to minds, brains, and souls—is the nature of “self,” because each of us, almost all of us, feels as though there is a “me” inside. The analogy of the driver and the carriage is a very common one in various religious and spiritual traditions. Indeed it feels as if “I” am in here, “I” am now waving my hand in front of my keyboard, and “I” caused that action. I can look out of the window to the trees being blown in the summer wind and think “I” am seeing the trees. “I” am in here and the trees are out there. All of this is illusory. The way it appears is not how it is. There’s a brain and a body and a world that are all interacting with each other and somehow they give rise to this sense that I am separate from all of the rest of it. That is the illusion. There is no separate “me.” There is no separate “self.” The interesting question then becomes why does it seem that way? This is a question I am endlessly playing with, from both a scientific and a spiritual point of view.
Finally, we come on to free will and this is one of my great enthusiasms. I am not a philosopher. I am not qualified to talk in terms of all the complexities that thousands of years of discussion about free will have entailed. Indeed free will is said to be the most discussed philosophical issue of all time, and I can believe that. What I am interested in is how we can live our lives if we don’t believe in free will.
I haven’t believed in free will for many, many decades. I know that because I’ve recently reread my diaries from the 1970s. In my early twenties, I was arguing with people about free will and always saying that our will cannot be free. We can have a stronger or weaker will. Some people have a very strong will, but that comes down to their genes, memes and life experiences. Their strong will is still not free. Everything to do with will, everything to do with agency and action, is based on what went before in the brain, body and world.
If, for example, I decide now to thump the table, that is because of all the things that have gone before. Genes, memes, environment, the fact that you are listening, the fact that you asked me the question, the fact that it was tempting to join in your book, the fact that at that moment it seemed appropriate, for various reasons to do with my linguistic past, to think of something to do and the convenience of the table here under my hand. Everything is caused by what went before. That doesn’t mean that it’s predetermined, of course, but that it has causal antecedents. So where could the magical powers of free will possibly fit in? As with God, we have no need of this hypothesis.
Claiming that free will is illusory makes the most direct and wonderful clash with some religions and not with others and this I find really interesting. Take Christianity and Islam. In both of these religions, God gave us free will. Islam gets into complicated tangles over this issue with lots of arguments about predestination because, as so many Islamic scholars have noticed, there seem to be awful contradictions in the teachings. Generally speaking, though, there is a belief that human beings have free will even though nothing occurs except by Allah’s decree.
In Christianity it is said that God gave us free will so that we could choose between good and evil. So here is this universe set up by God with good and evil in it, or perhaps God and the Devil, and we poor creatures are created in God’s image. (That’s odd because if we were in his image, wouldn’t we always do the right thing?) It’s set up so that we have to make this choice and we have free will to do so.
If you took away free will from that Christian Dogma, then you would find that there wasn’t any sense in us choosing good or evil. Of course, this has implications for the way we understand our own society and, in my mind, people act well or badly because of the background that they’ve had. This doesn’t mean that we should exonerate them from the consequences of their actions, but it does mean that we shouldn’t judge them as inherently good or evil of their own free will, but as part of the universe of evolved beings behaving in the way they must in the circumstances they find themselves in.
Let me now turn to Buddhism because here you find a totally different view—particularly in Zen Buddhism. Now the trouble is that Buddhism, like all religions, covers all sorts of different ideas in many, many branches. I’m speaking here not from studying Buddhist doctrine but from my own thirty years training in Zen and long practice of meditating every day.
Deep down in the Buddhist teachings is one central doctrine called “codependent arising” or “dependent origination,” and I think this is most marvelous. The Buddha, two and a half thousand years ago, said that everything that happens arises from what went before, which was quite contradictory to the folk culture in which he grew up. He rejected the popular ideas of spirits and invisible powers and said, no, everything happens because of what happened before.
There is no specific doctrine of free will within Buddhism. Yet that central idea of codependent arising seems to me to do away with free will. There are also many practices which involve ‘letting go’ or ‘letting be’ and not trying to control the mind. For example, central to many meditation practices is the idea of letting go of clinging to all sorts of things, but in particular clinging to self—then you see that it is the illusory self, or constructed self, who would be the one to exert the free will. If you let go of that, then free will disappears too.
It’s often said that the ultimate in Zen, the ultimate conclusion of long years of meditation, is non-meditation. I must say, when I first heard that, probably twenty years ago, I was completely horrified—“You mean I’m going to spend years and years meditating? It’s so painful and I hate it, and I sit on my cushion and my legs hurt. I hate the thoughts I have. It’s all so absolutely ghastly and what I’m heading for is non-meditation? Ugh!”—it seemed such a counter-intuitive and horrific idea. And yet now I’m very comfortable with that idea because when the self who would be doing things slips away, the question arises who is meditating? This question can be used as an especially difficult koan; a question to meditate with, but after a while it simply loses its power. Any thought that “I” am meditating seems no longer to have the grip that it used to have. Meditation happens. This is all quite different from the teachings of the monotheistic religions.
My absolute favorite all time quote from the Buddha is, “actions exist and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not.” I think we can see that in that religion at least, the ideas of science and religion can be compatible.
No. I completely disagree, particularly with Steven J. Gould’s explanation of the separate magisteria, for the reasons that I’ve given you in the answer to question two. Various religions and science ask questions about the same things. They ask questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the universe made of? Do I have free will? All these are questions that both science and religion try to answer. Science gives better and better answers as it continues delving into the universe. Religion just gets itself in ever deeper tangles. I think it’s a cop-out to say they have separate magisteria, and thereby somehow give religion a space to occupy that it doesn’t deserve.
Memetics. How shall I begin this? I love the idea that Richard Dawkins started in his book The Selfish Gene that we can look on habits and skills and stories and songs, all of the things that we pass from person to person and culture to culture, as memes—a kind of cultural equivalent of genes.
A lot of people hate memetics. There are very, very few scientists who agree with me about its potential power. But I think there are more and more scientists who think that culture evolves as opposed to being, like Steven J. Gould who said, “I wish people would stop talking about cultural evolution.” Culture does evolve, and I like to think of that process in terms of the competition between memes to use us human meme machines to get themselves copied.
Religions are absolutely the epitome of a selfish memeplex. Memeplex is an abbreviation of ‘co-adapted meme complex’. In other words, a whole lot of memes that hang around together because they are more likely to get passed on from person to person, (or person to book, or book to computer) as a group than they would on their own. You could say that they are protected by the informational equivalent of a membrane and create something like an organism.
So why do I think of religions like this? Religions have much in common with email viruses, chain letters and so on because their essential structure is a copy-me-instruction backed up by threats and promises.
In almost any religion, you will find that you are told by God or by the priests or by whoever it may be, that you are to spread the religion. Sometimes it’s in a cheerful version, “Spread the good news of Jesus, we’re all going to be saved!” or it can be in a horrible version, “If you don’t spread this idea, if you don’t bring your children up in this religion, you’ll be hacked to death, ostracized, murdered, or tortured.” If the threats are for punishment in this life, as they are in Islam, it is understandable that people conform, and so the religion continues on its way. If they are for the life hereafter then the memeplex needs further tricks to make that mythical place believable, such as promoting faith over doubt, banning any attempt at testing, and treating laughter as blasphemy.
There are lots and lots of other tricks that religions use to get themselves copied. Memes are just information: Information that can manifest itself in the form of writing in a book, digits in a computer, words spoken by a human, behaviors that can be copied like eating with a knife and fork or driving on the left or the right of the road. They are information that replicates and can keep changing form as it competes with other information to fill up the niches in culture.
There are obviously many niches for religions to compete for in the human mind. We long for answers to difficult questions including the ones we’ve been discussing here. We long to know: What should I do now? What is right and what is wrong? Why is the world so unfair? Why is there so much wickedness and suffering? Religions appear to give answers, so that’s one niche that they’re filling. They help some people to face death and sickness by offering life after death. They promise to even up the unfairness of life by rewarding the good and punishing evil in the invisible hereafter.
Many religions do this but how and why does one religion out-compete another? We might imagine the 2,000-year history of human religious development and consider all the millions of little cults there must have been. Jesus started out with twelve disciples. There must have been many other charismatic leaders gathering little groups of people around them. Most of these proto-cults would have died out with the death of their leader, and this probably happened again and again and again over thousands of years. Some of them led to Christianity and all its many, many branches, or to Islam, or to different branches of Hinduism and so on. The development and division of the world’s religions have been mapped out in great detail and really do form evolutionary trees. So why did these few religions spread across the world and the rest die out?
I would say not because they are true or useful or give valid answers to the questions that science is now answering properly. I would say it’s primarily because of the tricks they use. These are not just threats and promises. Religions also use what I call the beauty trick. If you go into a beautiful church…and goodness me, there are the most wonderful churches around here. I live in a small South Devon village with an amazing thirteenth-century church. It’s absolutely beautiful and there are many others like it around here. Every time I go inside I almost draw a breath at the calmness, the quiet, the ancient stone, the stained glass windows, the beautiful altar, the carvings. You can just stand there and be transfixed.
That is true beauty. That is true wonder. But of course while you’re there, you cannot avoid the images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, the illustrations of bible stories, and the reminders of the threats and promises that Christianity offers. If you’re there for a service, you cannot escape the teachings. I was at a funeral last week and was horrified when the vicar started shouting loudly about how we Christians know that death is not the end and our beloved here (whose coffin was in front of us), will be going on to the many rooms in God’s mansion. All this gibberish is more likely to be believed because of the beauty, the serenity, and the wonder of the surroundings. Then there’s all the wonderful, glorious music and the beautiful words of the Kings James Bible—which I do think has beautiful words in it even if I dislike the content so much. And there are the catchy tunes of hymns that have been selected over centuries to take their place in religious services—tunes that many of us learn as children and can never forget.
Then there’s the altruism trick. This is really nasty because almost all religions, and certainly Christianity, tell their believers that if they follow the teachings they are good. They tell people—you are a good person because you’re a Christian and you do as God wants (of your own free will of course!). The implication is that other people are not so good and you are morally superior to the unbelievers. Many Christians are indeed kind and generous people. You can ask them why and they often say that the reason they do helpful things, or give money to charity or volunteer in their community is because of their faith. It is because they follow Jesus that they do this, or for Muslims it is because they worship Allah that they do these good things.
But I’m happy to say there are recent studies done on the actual altruistic behavior of believers and atheists. When comparing levels of prosocial behaviour there is no consistent difference between atheists and religious people. It is just that the atheists cite their own conscience or personal values rather than their faith as the reason for doing good.
The altruism trick is extremely powerful and is found in almost every religion, promoting empathy, compassion, kindness, and above all, love. Of course the love and kindness can be genuine but I call this a trick because religions use all their talk of love and compassion to further their own agenda. And why does this work? Because we want to be good. And why do we want to be good? Because of our evolved nature. If you are seen to be good, whether you are a chimpanzee or a human being or one of many other social species, you gain an advantage. You may gain status, get a better mate, and get better food, if other people like you. If others think you’re trustworthy and generous they will want you in their group and will be willing to return your favours in the game of reciprocal altruism.
There are many other tricks by which religions piggy back on human nature and lure people into adopting their beliefs, customs and regulations. And they add to them all by demanding money to support the spread of those religious ideas. This is made to seem like yet another altruistic action, when all it does is trick yet more people into believing nonsense and spending their precious time and money promoting these religious memes. The gist of all this is to say that if I’ve made any contribution towards the relationship between science and religion it is to take the idea of memes seriously and show just how and why religions can control people’s lives despite being riddled with nonsense.
I would like to add here one other idea to do with memes and religion, which specifically concerns Buddhism. What I find really fascinating is how strongly the popular idea of Buddhism revolves around a really crude version of personal reincarnation. This is the idea that each person is reincarnated into another body or a whole series of bodies, and might either descend in the next life to become a frog or ascend through higher levels and evolve spiritually as the highest kind of being – a human who can become a Bodhisattva. This is particularly prevalent in Tibetan Buddhism, possibly because reincarnation was already part of the existing folklore of Tibet when Buddhism first arrived there.
Indeed, all over the world, people have invented the idea of reincarnation again and again. It’s just one of those natural kinds of ideas that our brains are suited to. It comes easily from the false idea of the self who lives inside the body and from asking—When I die, what happens to me? My body rots, or is burned or whatever, but what happens to “me”? Some religions answer by saying that “I” go on to live forever in heaven or hell; others that “I” am reincarnated as something else. This is tempting to believe for surely “I” cannot just not exist after death.
The weird thing is that if you read what the Buddha said, you find that the central doctrines of Buddhism are all about no self, or anatta. This doesn’t literally mean there is no self but that the self is not what it seems to be. In other words “I” am not a persisting entity. The self is not something that has experiences or exerts power or controls its body. It’s an ephemeral construct that arises and falls away and arises and falls away. There may still be some kind of continuity because of memory but this comes down to the continuity of the body – not of some separately existing inner being. Death in this context becomes no different from life because in every moment of life selves are arising and falling away. So death will be just another falling away.
This is indeed a tough doctrine to swallow. So let’s compare these two ideas. First there is the idea of personal reincarnation, that “I” will not disappear when my body dies but will go on to live another life. Everything I do now will have meaning and purpose because of its consequences in that future life. The alternative view of anatta is that nothing ultimately matters, for everything is ephemeral, including my precious self. And look—that self is already gone. Here’s another me! And what about the one who started trying to answer these questions at the beginning? She’s long gone. All selves are ephemeral constructs and really of no consequence.
Which idea is going to be more popular? Which meme is going to get itself copied into more brains? The answer is surely obvious. The first is a much stickier meme than the second. It usually takes years and years and years of meditation and mindfulness for people to become comfortable with the idea of letting go of self – of accepting that self is an ephemeral construct in an ever-changing universe devoid of ultimate purpose. So when these two different memeplexes compete in our modern world, the first (false) one thrives. Like science, the Buddha’s ideas challenge everything we like to believe. For this reason they do not make popular memes.
This leads me to one final part to my answer, which concerns spirituality. For all I’ve said against religions and the horrors they commit, I think most of them have, deep down in their core, deep spiritual truths. I have difficulty with that word “spiritual,” because it implies there must be such a thing as a spirit. I don’t mean that at all and yet I don’t have a better word for it. I mean something that leads some of us to pursue meditation, to train our minds to become gentle and peaceful, to have mystical experiences in which the self dissolves into the universe, to allow experiences of non-duality.
Right in the heart of Christian mysticism, and in Sufism, and in the Advaita tradition of Hinduism, you find the same ideas of letting go of self, of being one with the universe, of surrender to what is. Yet the popular versions of all these religions are quite different. I think we can therefore see the process I described in terms of Buddhism and reincarnation as quite general. Difficult spiritual insights get washed away by popular ideas of self and gods backed up with clever tricks.
If it is true that there is no persisting self, no free will, no stream of conscious experiences, and the universe is just as it is, that’s tough for any of us to accept. So the popular memes of God, the afterlife, souls, and spirits that form such an important part of religion, will nearly always win out. Nearly always! Not quite. I hold out some hope that maybe they won’t always win.
I was at a conference last week and there was a cloth bag for sale which said “Religion! Together we can find the cure.” I thought that was absolutely wonderful. That to me expresses the problem or the challenge confronting us now.
To put it in memetic terms, we need to strengthen memetic immunity. We need to find or create successful memes that will help people to look critically at things they have previously just accepted. Almost every religious person alive today holds to the religion of their parents. This indoctrination when they’re very young makes the religion hard to throw off but it must be possible to find ways to help people throw off their religious beliefs if they find them wanting.
This can be hard when you consider some of the consequences of rejecting one’s religion. In Islam apostates may be rejected by their families, thrown out of their community, and threatened with injury, mutilation, or death if they give up their faith. Surely, there are counter memes. Surely there are disinfectant memes that might spread and help people escape the tricks religion has played on them. To some extent this is already happening. I think the opening up of the World Wide Web and the international media means that people are not kept totally ignorant of other religions. And that really helps.
I reflect on the situation in my children’s school and how different things are in the English education system from the American education system. It’s really strange and perverse. In the United States, you have the idea of separation of church and state, which means that you’re not allowed to teach religion in schools. Here in England, we have a state religion. The Queen is the Head of the Church of England. That is our nation’s religion and we also have compulsory religious education in schools.
What has been the consequence of this? In the United States, the majority of people are religious. Politicians mention God. They say “God bless you” in their speeches, and “God be with us,” and awful things like that. Children are generally brought up—because they have no religious education in school—knowing only about the religion of their parents. They’re taken to a church or mosque or synagogue and taught that their own religion is true from a young age. This makes it very hard to throw them off.
By contrast here in England, we have compulsory religious education and, because we have a lot of different people from different religions living here, that means that religious education has become comparative religion. My kids are well grown up now, but I remember them coming home from school with some friends and they were larking around and saying, “Guess what we learned today? The Sikhs wear turbans on their head and they believe you have to have a sword. Do you know Muslims believe that . . .” They were all kind of throwing these ideas around and they must have been seven or eight years old. It doesn’t take a very brainy kid who learns about a whole lot of religions to come to the conclusion that they can’t all be true. And that is the starting point of being critical and escaping from the feeling that whatever you were taught as a child must be the truth.
We get on fine with our state religion in England by and large. The majority of people now in surveys do not describe themselves as practicing any religion. In the last census, we had thousands of people describing their religion as Jedi, or the flying spaghetti monster. More important, about a quarter of the population of England and Wales reported “no religion.” This is not a country where belief in God thrives, or where being an atheist is considered remotely odd or unusual. Indeed I don’t know or meet many people who are traditionally religious. I once asked my kids whether they knew any religious people in their school. My son pulled a face and said, “Yes, there are two girls in our class who believe in God!”
There is hope, but that’s the challenge. The challenge is to help people to escape from the oppression of the religion they grew up with. And we need to do that in such a way that doesn’t oppress those who still want to believe, that doesn’t throw out natural human curiosity or human awe, and doesn’t throw out what I have to call, because of lack of a better word, our spirituality, our spiritual nature. I hope that we can retain the capacity to follow a spiritual path, to practice meditation, contemplation or mindfulness, to work towards a different relationship between self and others. I hope we can strive to become more compassionate, more understanding and freer from the oppressions that the memes put on us all the time.
These really are challenges. And the prospects for progress? I don’t think I’m going to answer that one, but I do remain hopeful.
[*] This interview was conducted via Skype and the transcription approved by Susan Blackmore. Any remaining errors or mistakes are the fault of the editor.