Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Evolution of "God" and how Religion is a Meme

I actually had to look up the definition of meme today. It's one of those words that I know what it's associated with, but never new where it came from or it's exact definition. The definition of meme, (pronounced like the word jem) via wikipedia:

A meme comprises any idea or behavior that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, practices, fashions, habits, songs, and dances. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the cultural sociosphere in a manner similar to the contagious behavior of a virus.

Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" as a neologism in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) to describe how one might extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious belief), clothing or fashion, and technology such as the arch.

Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of Darwinian biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity's reproductive success. Thus one can expect that some memes will propagate less successfully and become extinct, while others will survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. "Memeticists argue that the memes most beneficial to their hosts will not necessarily survive; rather, those memes that replicate the most effectively spread best, which allows for the possibility that successful memes may prove detrimental to their hosts."

Why do I bring this up?

I stumbled upon an article today with the explicit title "How One Catholic Priest Destroyed the Entire Mayan Written Language". It is a fascinating read about the intolerance of religions, in particular the Intolerance Meme of Christianity. That being the "idea that evolved in the Jewish religion a few centuries before the birth of Jesus, and was taken up with a vengeance by Christians in the third and fourth centuries AD" that "declares that not only is Yahweh the only god, but in addition, anyone who worships other gods is committing a sin. The Intolerance Meme justifies all sorts of atrocities in Yahweh's name: Murder, slavery, forced conversion, suppression and destruction of other religions, racism, and many other immoral acts". In this case the atrocities and immoral acts amounted to an inquisition that "resulted in torture and death across the Yucatan region" and the wiping out of "all knowledge of the Mayan religion" via destruction of the Mayan language and hieroglyphs.

This article was written by Craig A. James, who has written a book called The Religion Virus. The entire book isn't yet available (coming 2009) but the first few chapters are available to read online through his website. Here is a couple excerpts:

The loving God you know today is the result of the longest and best “marketing makeover” in history – four thousand years of changes and improvements to Yahweh's image, from Abraham's time to yours. Yahweh has evolved into the Almighty God, the God of everything, the loving, forgiving God, the only God. The Yahweh makeover is so complete that we just call him “God” now, with a capital “G”. We don't have to distinguish God from the other gods, because most Westerners are monotheists. Yahweh completely dominates Western religions. The other gods that Abraham and Moses worshipped – the gods of your spiritual ancestors, the Israelites – are either forgotten, or are grouped together under the dismissive title “mythology.”

This is the story about how humans created God, and shaped God's image, not the other way around. The God you know today is the result of an evolutionary process, the powerful and inexorable forces known as "survival of the fittest." But it was cultural evolution, not biological evolution, that was at work, changing and improving Yahweh's image over the millenia. And it wasn't just Yahweh who was shaped by cultural evolution; these same forces created and refined all of our religious beliefs. Evolution created religion, just as it created Yahweh.

Dawkins realized that it was the replication of information that was the underlying principle common to genes and ideas (memes). A century earlier, Charles Darwin had spelled out the principles of natural selection, which in spite of the staggering amount that has been written, boil down to three simple ideas: reproduction, mutation, and natural selection (survival of the fittest). If we rephrase these three ideas in information-theory terms, we would call it transcription (copying), transcription errors (mutation), and filtering (natural selection). And these concepts apply to both genes and memes. With this "grand unification" of the two disciplines, Dawkins laid the foundation for the study of memetics, which uses Darwin's evolution science to predict and explain the very foundations of human culture and knowledge.

And finally, on a side note, in his book James quotes the Greek philosopher Epicurus. If you have never read about this man and his teachings, I highly recommend it.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
– Epicurus

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