Religion: A Memetic Infection

The images stay with me, as they will with anyone who sees them. For a high school Social Studies class, we were assigned to present a report on any social issue we thought had created an impact on our society. The class met at the library and researched topics, each one had to be approved by the teacher. I couldn’t decide on a topic. I considered the death of Kurt Cobain and the romanticizing of suicide. My teacher agreed but I couldn’t flush it out and went back to the drawing board. I flipped through some history books and stumbled upon the images of the Jonestown Masscre. Jonestown occurred six years before I was born. I had never heard about it before and was in awe of the images of bloated bodies. I had heard and even used the colloquial phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” but I wasn’t aware it had such a deadly connotation. The question has been asked time and time again, What would drive someone to do such a thing?

Years had past from my Social Studies report and during a late night of internet surfing I found the Jonestown Death Tape. The audio is a haunting 45 minute experience in what has come to be known by several terms; memetic infections, brainwashing, and collective effervescence. The tape involves Jim Jones discussing with his followers the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan at the airstrip. Emotions are high with people yelling and screaming at one another. Christine is a notable speaker who fervently suggests another course of action, possibly escaping to Russia. All the while Jones comforts his followers that the children are crying because the taste is bitter. Others rejoice in the lives they lived and proclaim they are ready to die to boisterous applause. As the tape ends the voices become fewer and fewer until only the gospel music the event was recorded over lingers on.

 photo dianebenscoter_2009u_interview_zps36f3494f.jpg

Recently Diane Benscoter released a book about her time with the Moonies. Her book Shoes of a Servant: My Unconditional Devotion to A Lie, explains her servitude and indoctrination in the Moonie cult. The Moonies are members of The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. They are a religious movement founded in South Korea by Sun Myung Moon. Many consider them a personality cult and cite Moon’s belief that he was the second coming of Jesus and a God worthy of worship as evidence.

Diane spoke about her experience during a recent TED talk entitled How Cults Rewire the Brain. She discusses her role in the church as an involuntary deprogrammer, which ultimately led to her being arrested for kidnapping. Diane claims she suffered from what she calls a Viral Memetic Infection. With that being defined as an intense form of circular logic that becomes impenetrable and creates an “Us vs Them” mentality to the afflicted. Diane discusses a circular logic which by its nature can not be questioned. “Circular logic stops us from using our faculties of critical thinking, and causes our ability for critical and independent thought to atrophy.” Diane explains. This type of brain training is one main factor of any cult. The voice of the leader replaces critical thought. Diane has proposed that we are assessing extremism from the wrong angle, and that at the core humans have compassion and need to be reminded of where those compassions lie.

We need to take these phenomena out of the realm of good and evil and into the realm of science. What we really need to do is understand what happens in the brain, and I challenge experts in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry to do this — perhaps there is some way to identify the extremist brain. – Diane Benscoter

A Brief History of Memes

Meme, analogous to a gene, was conceived as an idea, belief, or pattern of behavior which is hosted in one or more individual minds, and which can reproduce itself by jumping from mind to mind. The concept was first suggested by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. The exact definition of a meme hasn’t been officially settled. Richard Brodie, author of Viruses of the Mind defined it as “ a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself will get created in other minds.” Susan Blackmore who wrote The Meme Machine defines a meme as “whatever is copied from one person to another person, whether habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information.” The memes self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. The combination of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, forms precisely the conditions for biological evolution, and thus constitutes a meme evolution.

In today’s society memes are quite commonly associated with an internet sensation. Anyone familiar with internet memes will be able to easily understand the transmission and evolution of a meme.

Three Conditions for Meme Evolution:

  1. Variation, or the introduction of new change to existing elements
  2. Heredity or replication. Or the capacity to create copies of elements
  3. Differential “fitness”, or the opportunity for one element to be more or less suited to the environment than another – Richard Dawkins

Aaron Lynch described seven general patterns of meme transmission in this book Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society. They include:

  • Quality of Parenthood: this influences the amount of children an individual will have and the receptivity of ideas to children from their parents provides one method of replication.
  • Efficiency of Parnethood: This effects how easily a child will adopt the ideas of their parents.
  • Proselytic: This involves a individual infected with a meme to replicate that meme to its peers, such as classmates or work colleagues.
  • Presevational: This creates a need for the meme to be retained by the host. These memes can provide protection from other proselytizing memes.
  • Adversative: Coupled with a memes preservability, this allows a carrier to attack or sabotage competing memes.
  • Cognitive: These rely on the culture the meme host resides in and which memes are widely held in that population to appear as cogent.
  • Motivational: Allows people to adopt a meme they feel will benefit them.

Given the viability of a meme it’s no wonder that its use is being considered in various forms of weaponization. The Military Memetics Project was started in 2006 by Robotic Technology Inc. under sponsorship from the Department of Defense. During The 26th Chaos Communication Congress Aaron Muszlaki gave a presentation called “Weaponizing Cultural Viruses: A Manual For Engaged Memetic Resistance on The Front Lines of The Culture Wars”. In which he explained several characteristics of a Memetic Immune System. Those exhibiting a weak memetic immune system would be impulsive, superstitious, and hold weak beliefs dependent on faith. Those with a strong memetic immune system would display skepticism, willfulness, and an ability to fact check. These are good general starting points to understand how a meme can infect specific individuals. Aaron explained a few examples on correcting a preexisting meme, via context hacking or setting up TAZs or Temporary Autonomous Zones where those affected by memes could feel free to have an experience outside of their circular logic.

Is Religion a Memetic Infection?

Almost everyone has come in contact with religion and mainly the religious whether fundamentalists, orthodox or wishy-washy. Religion is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power. Religion can easily be seen as a memetic cult, where a cult means any system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object. Not all religions will fall into this category, and furthermore not all memes are negative.

We can assess whether or not religion is a meme by evaluating it’s evolutionary and transmittable qualities. We’ll start with the three conditions of meme evolution.

  • Does religion have variation? Yes, as explained by Lionel Tiger in the above video “The Brain Creates Religion”, there are roughly 4,200 different religions in the world.
  • Does religion have heredity or replication? Yes, in the various religions of the world many of them are branches or offshoots of one another. Under the umbrella of Christianity there are three major replications; Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism (which is still further divided).
  • Does religion have differential fitness? Yes, either culturally or hereditary religions can be seen to occupy specific locations. Islam in the Middle East, Hinduism in India and the Mormons of Utah are three examples.

The evolution of religion is easily seen through history, but how has the meme of religion been transmitted? Religion displays all seven on Lynchs’ transmission patterns. The Quality and Efficiency of Parenthood might be the easiest to see in our current society. Similar to political beliefs, children take on the traits of their parents. Children generally attend church ceremonies and functions with their parents. The proselytic nature of many religions is ingrained into their existence. In the Mormon religion, males from 18 to 20 years old are required to fill a mission. Many times they are sent to other countries to witness and convert others into the Mormon faith. An adversarial belief coupled with a strong enough desire to preserve could explain my experience in religious debate chatrooms. Members upholding a fundamentalist mindset may seek out means of sabotaging or attacking opposing religions or beliefs.

The circular logic of an “Us vs Them” mentality is instilled or reinforced by adversarial debates. The erosion of critical thinking is accomplished through complex and forceful rhetoric. During these debates an individual will display dishonest religious perspectives such as “you are going to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus” or “you will be damned for eternity”. These types of rhetorical statements are intended to be coercive and manipulative rather than to supply an intellectually honest argument or reason.

Considering again, the connection with religious beliefs and political beliefs; research has suggested that people who hold extreme political beliefs are under an illusion of understanding. This illusion seems cogent to the meme host and is perpetuated by the society. People will surround themselves with others holding similar beliefs. This self-created society motivates a believer that their beliefs are indeed cogent, their attacks are warranted, the preservation is guaranteed and their proselyting is effective.

One of the attributes that holds believers of religion to the memetic cult is collective effervescence. Collective Effervescence is a perceived energy formed by a gathering of people. While this is not a trait of memes, it is integral to the religion meme. Collective effervescence allows the host to accept rhetorical claims and reinforces the motivation to preserve the meme. In a cult setting this can occur during reprogramming in the form of love-bombing or giving a new/potential member an overload of positive attention and affection.

Biological chemicals in the brain like serotonin, endorphins and adrenaline are released and can work to form a positive behavioral response to the cults memes. Mastering the use of this mental state can make reprogramming humans more like training dogs because we all have less ability to resist behavioral conditioning when under the influence of foreign or endogenous chemicals.

The Jonestown Death Tape displays moments of collective effervescence. The crowd erupts into claps and cheers to signal they are also ready and willing to die. Their desire to preserve their cult was deemed more important than themselves. The approach to dealing with a memetic cult involves severing the circular logic and taking slow steps back towards critical thinking. The context hacking example presented by Johannes Grenzfurthner could be effective. “Context hacking is a specific style of political action drawing from a watchful view of the paradoxes and absurdities of power, turning these into the starting point for interventions by playing with representations and identities, with alienation and over-identification.”

The similarity between memetic infections and biological infections could help formulate strategies to counter them. When an unknown virus or contagion is encountered the first step is to identify the ways in which the infection is transmitted. There are several ways in which memes propagate across generations and the population as a whole. Since there are many ways that memes can spread it may be difficult to stop or prevent any meme outright but it can be possible to identify the most efficient way to at least block a meme. In some cases public education or simple public awareness campaigns may be efficient enough to reduce the rate at which a detrimental meme is spreading and bring it under control.

In theory, a well functioning education system should teach our children how to counter the most harmful and irrational memetic infections by providing a vaccine in the form of critical thinking skills and counter-factual evidence exposing irrational memes as undesirable for the well being of the individual and society. This seems to be the method most widely adopted in our society. More properly targeted resources and an emphasis on high quality childhood and adult education especially in vital areas of critical thinking would hopefully allow us to collectively minimize the destructive effects of modern memetic infections.


About Trite Static

I enjoy coffee with cream and tea with sugar and am only able to knit in squares.
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