Darwin and Humanity : Can we rid the mind of God?

Oxford Union. February 2006

God is a sticky meme. God is a concept, an idea, a word, that gets passed from person to person, person to book, book to computer, and computer to person. Like any other meme it is selfish information competing to get as many people as possible who will pick it up and pass it on, pick it up and pass it on. Memes are all around us. Indeed our whole culture can be seen as masses of memes competing for survival. They include all of art and architecture, languages and sciences, songs and stories, all of which evolve by a kind of memetic natural selection.

Some memes survive because they are good or true or useful or beautiful. You might include this wonderful building here, the institution of the University, or the idea of open debates on controversial subjects. Others survive in spite of not being any of those things; and some survive in spite of being positively dangerous to their carriers or to their carriers’ genes. These latter we might call viruses, and they include such things as pyramid selling schemes, email viruses and quack medicines. These viral memes have to use tricks and nasty ploys to get us to copy and propagate them.

So why is God such a successful meme?

As a single meme it probably wouldn’t last long. The idea of someone all-powerful who cares about us can be tempting to believe in, but its limitations are so obvious. God, in most versions at least, is supposed to be a loving creator; two characteristics that immediately invite scepticism. When people did not understand how plants, animals and the whole biological world came about, it was reasonable to imagine a vast creator in the sky who dreamed it all up, even if that did not actually explain anything. Now there’s no excuse for giving that job to an imaginary god. We do understand our origins, and so we don’t need that idea any longer. And how could a loving creator create creatures with such obvious defects, that are entirely explicable by natural selection? Thinkers for millennia have wondered how any loving or beneficent god could permit the suffering that we all see all around us all the time. Clearly this meme is intellectually challenged.

But the God meme doesn’t have to compete on its own, it comes as part of a package, a vast memeplex called a religion. A memeplex is a “coadapted complex of memes”, a group of memes that propagate together and by doing so can fare better than any of them could on their own. Religions are wonderful examples because they have a very clear structure and are protected by a host of clever tricks.

First the cohesion of the memeplex is maintained by rules ensuring that the whole package is passed on together. For example, when I was confirmed I had to learn a whole lot of ridiculous ideas about miracles, and virgin birth, and raising from the dead, as well as hymns, prayers and rituals, and only once I’d learned them all could I go to communion. Catholics go further and have to learn the whole catechism. Similarly in other theistic religions there are rites of passage in which a large amount of information has to be taken on at once. You can’t pick and choose either to learn only the bits you like, or to mix up bits from other religions. The religious memeplexes protect their own integrity with these rituals.

This means the structure remains intact – and what a structure it is – essentially a copy-me instruction backed up with threats and promises. At the core is a mass of otherwise unbelievable doctrines, a potent set of rules for how they are all to be copied, and a mass of nasty tricks that ensure they are.

I hardly need to describe the threats and promises, the eternal bliss versus pain forever. These exploit a very useful meme – the “life after death” meme. No one likes the truth about death – that we are just frail biological creatures whose end will come at a time not of our own choosing. So the promise that you have an inner soul that will live forever is a winning meme. Then it’s a simple step to make it conditional. You’ll go to heaven if and only if you obey the rules – and that includes passing on the memes. Even worse, survival can be used to threaten truly horrendous consequences if you don’t. If you are a Muslim who breaks the faith then you must expect an eternity of beating with iron rods, boiling water being poured over you, your innards melting and falling out, and angels dragging you back into hell if you try to escape.

Why would anybody believe this stuff? Isn’t it ridiculous? When we look around us at the way the world works, think clearly and rationally, this idea is senseless. But these beliefs are given to children when they are very young and their memetic immune systems have hardly begun to develop. They can be frightened very easily and the fears can last a lifetime. I know of grown men, brought up as Catholics, who still feel great burdens of guilt that were lain on them as children. Memetic immunity comes from education, reading, sharing ideas with others and above all from free speech – the freedom to learn about all sorts of ideas, compare them as you will and choose for yourself which to believe.

Happily in this country we have an excellent tradition of religious education in schools. This has, in recent decades, become comparative religion. So our children are taught, from quite young, to compare religious ideas in the context of school where they are also taught other ideas from science and history. It doesn’t take a genius to compare half a dozen religions and conclude that they cannot all be true. I suspect that this teaching has done wonders for free thought in Britain and has contributed greatly to our secular society. In the USA religious education is banned from schools, with the consequence that parents are able to indoctrinate their children at home with no competition. And we have to understand them, not blame them, for they were infected with their own religion when they were too young to resist.

So the threats and promises work very well. And there is more. The theistic religions praise faith over doubt. Obviously anyone who starts applying a bit of healthy doubt to the idea of God is likely to reject it as nonsensical. So a useful protection here is to punish people for doubt as well, and reward them for (that wonderful phrase) “blind faith”.

You might be thinking that a well designed memeplex like this had to be designed by someone. But of course it did not. It evolved by the Darwinian process of copying with variation and selection. The way to think of it is like this. Over the past few millennia there have been countless small sects with charismatic leaders and crazy ideas that sprung up all over the world. Any that happened to have good meme tricks would spread more easily. If a tradition got going, different interpretations would compete for followers and so on. In the end the memeplexes that survived were the ones that, just by recombination and thousands of years of competition, had whatever it takes to get into people’s heads young and stick there. So that is the situation we have today. Billions of people all over the world are infected with the idea of God.

Is that such a bad thing? Oh yes. There are not just the religious wars and killing, but the way God is used to justify appalling oppression of women, restriction of free learning, and the creation of oppressive societies. And there’s one last trick that I didn’t mention – the altruism trick. I am really not quite sure how the religions pull this one off, but they do. Somehow or other they claim to have the moral high ground. They convince people that believing in God makes you a better person. Now it is true that many people who believe in God give money to the poor and act in wonderfully altruistic and generous ways., but I am not convinced that they aren’t just nice people who would do so in any case. Certainly people give a lot of money to their churches, mosques and synagogues but a great deal of that money goes to the glorification of the religion, the buildings, the fancy costumes, and the services – in other words for the propagation of the memes. But what about the wider effects. Some recent research by Gregory Paul has compared different developed societies on such moral indicators as murder, violent crime, suicide, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease – just those things that believers in God claim that faith helps to reduce. The evidence suggests otherwise. Paul found a strong positive correlation – those countries with the highest levels of belief in a creator god are those with the lowest levels of societal health – more murder, more suicide, and more sexually transmitted disease, even though these things are supposed to be forbidden.

Finally, these memes seem to have pulled off the trick of persuading the rest of us that we should respect people’s faith; that we should not offend them by questioning their bizarre beliefs, and that we should accept some of the terrible things they do in the name of their God. Of course they do – because otherwise the power of the God meme is under threat. I say we should not be bamboozled this way. When we understand the way these pernicious memes work we can see why we have to stand up to their nasty tricks and why we shall all be better off if we can rid the mind of God.

But there is one last difficulty in our way. I have argued that since memes have been around, which is probably about 2 and a half million years, they have been driving human evolution to create brains that are specially good at copying them. This is why we have such enormous brains; this is why we have language, but it is also why we have a tendency to adopt religious beliefs. Our long history of co-evolution with religious memes means that our brains are especially susceptible to them. So the task is even harder.

So – can we rid the mind of God? Can we rid the body of bird flu? Can we rid the planet of smallpox? As with all diseases, if you understand how they infect people and spread, then you can give the right treatment. When you give people’s immune system the best possible chance, then they will heal themselves. We may never entirely eradicate a meme of such craftiness, but we know how to give people’s memetic immune system the best possible chance – encourage free thought, good education, critical thinking, and above all free speech. Then the god meme’s cheap tricks will cease to work their magic and finally, perhaps, we can rid the mind of god.