There is no doubt that religion has dominated the thinking of the last millennium. Before that, religion played a central part in human culture since very early times.
There is also no doubt that, due to their religious memes, many people have been influenced in their behaviour. Some for human welfare and others for human sacrifice.
Ninian Smart, when Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies in the University of Lancaster wrote in The World’s Religions about the rich cultural diversity of human religious memes:
So long as humans are brought up in different paths, so they will see the world differently, and for each path some things will seem natural and right and others not. But the paths cross. We can benefit from that. Social justice, which Marxists struggle for; human freedom, which liberals emphasize; love of God and fellow humans, which Christianity preaches; brotherhood, which Islam promotes; calm and mysticism, which go with Buddhism; devotion and pluralism, which Hinduism points to; harmony with nature, which Taoism commends; the cultivation of interpersonal behaviour, which is a lesson from Confucianism; holism in life, which we find in Africa; finding meaning through suffering, which Judaism has had to emphasize; the importance of inner sincerity, which we find among the Sikhs: these and many other spiritual and moral values are not of course mutually incompatible.
Yes, many religious memes seem as though they should be quite compatible but the trouble has been that they are usually antagonistic to one another. If only the world’s religions had a history of tolerance. If only each different religion had demonstrated a respect for other religions. If only the most ferocious wars ever fought had not been religious wars.
If only religions behaved well and were chivalrous to one another. If only the cognitive greed exemplified by claiming I-am-right-and-You-are wrong, sadly, a meme which is still so widespread and coveted by so many of those self-righteous souls. If only …
A thousand years ago the Christian memes fought their bloodthirsty crusade against the memes of Islam. Today, the evidence is strong that the battle is far from over. But, there is hope.
As we launch humanity into the Third Millennium we find that we do have an alternative to religion – science. Both religion and science fulfil a basic human need which is to try to understand things.
Religion uses inspiration and science uses observation. Religion uses faith and science uses experiment. Religion uses Absolute Truth and science uses evolving fuzzy truths. Religion uses authority and science uses questioning. There is an overlap between the two.
Dr Susan Blackmore of the Department of Psychology, University of the West of England, notes in The Meme Machine,
We cannot get away from religions, but using memetics we can understand how and why they have such power. All the great religions of the world began as small-scale cults, usually with a charismatic leader, and over the years a few of them spread to take in billions of people all over the planet. Imagine just how many cults there must have been in the history of the world. The question is why did these few survive to become the great faiths, while the vast majority simply died out with the death of their leader or the dispersal of their few adherents?… Dawkins was the first to give memetic answers, although his ideas on religion have been frequently criticised. He took Roman Catholicism as an example…millions of people all over the world profess themselves Catholics and pray to Jesus, his mother Mary, and God the Father. They spend vast amounts of their valuable time and money supporting and spreading the faith to others, and the Catholic Church is among the richest institutions in the world. Dawkins explains how religious memes, even if they are not true, can be successful.
I have also written at length about this in Software For Your Brain and will do so only briefly here. Because of the righteousness involved it’s a tricky topic to write about and it’s so easy to be accused of showing religious intolerance and other knee-jerk reactions. Yet it is precisely because of the historical intolerance promoted by many religious authorities that one needs to address the issue.
The distinguished biologist, Sir Peter Medawar once wrote: The price in blood and tears that mankind generally has had to pay for the comfort and spiritual refreshment that religion has brought a few has been too great to justify entrusting our moral accountancy to religious belief.
Many of our current business memes are derived from religious memes. For example, the absolutes of ‘right vs wrong’, ‘good vs bad’, ‘men vs women’, ‘salesman vs customer’ and ‘managers vs employees’ are all religion-based memes.
Many of these conflicts have a big impact on business growth. While I intend no offence whatever to sincerely held religious beliefs, I feel that I cannot avoid discussing religion in a serious, open-minded discussion of memes.
While the reader is perfectly free to disagree, I do defend the claim that the evolving fuzzy truths of science are safer and more human-friendly than the Absolute Truth of religion. It is my view that the awesome astonishment that science offers us from its accelerating stream of discoveries is a peak experience which dwarfs the cryptic ‘revelations’ of the occult and supernatural.
The scientific method is a bona fide attempt to try to differentiate the truer memes from false memes. The paradox is that it is an ongoing process. You never get there. There is no Absolute Truth in science, only truths that are more likely than other truths.
Science is based on observation and measurement–evidence. Since there is always more and more evidence, scientific truths are constantly challenged and updated.
Scientific knowledge is not secret or arcane but open to investigation and detailed analysis by anyone. By contrast, religious memes rarely rely on testing and evidence but are very often acts of faith that are spread with missionary zeal around the world. These memes may be absurdly false like Genesis, counterfeit like the Donation of Constantine or deadly like Fatwahs and Inquisitions but they are disguised as truth and virtue.
In my career, I have found that there is more religion than science in business and I am simply taking the position that I think there should be more science than religion in business. That’s all!
TD03 Feedback Question:
What positive effect have religious memes had on YOUR life?
What negative effect have religious memes had on YOUR life?