Memes like genes, need to survive long enough to replicate and spread. No meme matches religion for longevity. Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism are centuries old, and even relatively modern religions can claim far older ancestral roots. Whatever your brand of relgion, it likely plays a huge part in your life, determining to some extent where you live, who you marry, how many kids you have, what food you eat, and how you spend your free time. Richard Dawkins, who coined the term ‘meme’, was an outspoken Athiest, and described religion beliefs as "mind-parasites", or “viruses of the mind”, analogous to biological viruses. If this is so, it’s the most successful virus in history, as 6.6 billion people, or 85% of the world, are ‘infected’. Charles Darwin was less voiciferous about the implications his Theory of Evolution had for religion: being a deeply religious man himself, he rarely discussed the evolution of humans. However the implications were lost on no one, and to this day scientists and theologians still do battle over whether we evolved or were designed.
From an evolutionary view, biologists explain religion as a ‘malfunctioning’ mechanism in the brain we use for identifying agency. Through most of our evolutionary history it has been wise to overreact when we think we might see signs of intelligent behavior. If we have reason to believe a tiger is stalking us, or a neighboring tribe is hiding in the bushes with spears, there’s huge downside to under-reacting. The modern equivalent is hearing a noise in your house and going to check it out. It’s extremely likely there’s nothing there, but if the unthinkable happens, you want a shot at protecting your property, your family, and yourself. Historically we also enjoyed an advantage through our ability to anthropromorphise: imagining what animals are thinking as if they had human qualities made them easier to hunt. Being hardwired to spot agency everywhere meant seeing it in places there wasn’t any, such as rocks, trees, or the sun: our early gods.
From there religions have adapted and evolved to maintain share of mind, with weaker religions dying out, and stronger ones taking their place. Major religions essentially formed the first corporations, adopting memorable symbols to represent their brands: to this day crosses are on display from Moscow to Rio de Janeiro. Religions spread by agitating their hosts to display these symbols, turning followers into brand ambassadors. Religious symbols you wear or that decorate your home, serve as constant reminders of your commitment, and attracts the curiosity of others. The tallest, most beautiful buildings are often places of worship: awesome reminders of religious power. Religious texts are the most printed books – they serve as a memory aids, message preservation tools, and new recruit training manuals. Institutions don’t survive for long in the ‘noosphere’ – the collective human consciousness – without evolving with the times. That’s why early Christians rebranded Pagan holidays, like Yule to Christmas, to make the transition easy. Today you see 500-year-old institutions ditching collection plates for contactless payments.
The virus analogy however, doesn’t hold. Nothing that conferred a disadvantage on its hosts could have persisted for so long. Memes that benefit their hosts get actively remembered and propagated, and those that are too costly either wipe out their hosts or get actively forgotten by them. Across the globe, studies have shown that relgious people have more children than secular people. The difference is so severe that the human population would be below replacement rate without it, and our species would eventually risk extinction. Much evil has been done in the name of religion, but then many millions died at the hands of athiestic communist countries in the 20th century too. Every institution, no matter how well intentioned, will attract fundamentalist extremists, who attempt and sometimes succeed in subverting and corrupting its power against the wishes of the majority. Religious people are on average happier and healthier than the nonreligious. McGrath cites a meta-review of 100 scientific studies which 79 found religion positively impacted well-being, in particular mental health. They also are prone to cheat less, be more generous, and cooperate more in games, as other studies have shown. When Nietzsche declared “God is dead” it was regret. He lamented that evidence-based reasoning alone was insufficient to provide the meaning religion provides.
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