Religion is not really a ‘meme parasite’.


The scientific case for apatheism.


1. Introduction

While the truth value of religious belief is still a subject of debate, this is even more true of religion’s utility. Even if we take an evolutionary approach and focus on religion purely as an adaptive strategy (thus we ignore consolation and other psychological motives), it can be a tricky business. It’s tricky enough that even someone like Richard Dawkins can draw dubious conclusions; for example in The Selfish Gene (1976) and in much of his writing (2006) and oratory thereafter, he famously frames religion as a “meme virus” or “meme parasite”.  This idea has been taken up by some serious researchers (Blackmore 2006), but mostly by myriad antitheist propagandists too numerous to mention. I am not disagreeing with the project of criticizing religion, I just think that while the concept of ‘meme’ is something that all humans need to understand, we have no scientific warrant to interpret religion as a ‘meme parasite’.

2. A possible response on behalf of religion.

Often defenses of religion depend on unempirical or meaningless ideas, but in this case a religious person has a ready rebuttal; they can clearly claim that far from being a parasite, religion is a helpful symbiont. It’s clearly not a virus, since it does not decimate the populations if affects; only isolated individuals die from it. And religious revivals are not separated by long periods of freedom from religion as in the case of viral epidemics. No, religion is there the whole time, so the antitheist has some work to do to define it as a ‘parasite’.

The defender of religions, on the other hand, must clearly interpret religion as a symbiont. If religion is a symbiont, it will very often have adaptive effects on its host, something which can be confirmed objectively. Mere feelings do not count; lots of things feel good but are not adaptive at all; what counts is something which give the host some competitive advantage in the struggle for survival. The apatheism I defend here believes that even though religious beliefs are not true, religious ‘memeplexes’ (a system of memes that are culturally inherited together; other memplexes include a set of skills, a genre of narrative, a song repertoire, origami, a clothing style, a subculture ) are symbionts whose contribution to human evolution can be defined and documented in evolutionary terms.

3. What is a ‘virus’?

Religions are memeplexes . However they are not meme parasites . ‘Meme parasites ’ may seem more scientific, but it is really only slightly better than ‘superstition’, ‘false consciousness’ or ‘delusion’. This can be seen by looking at a precise definition of ‘virus’, here given by Dawkins himself in The Extended Phenotype:

“..Crucial importance attaches to the means by which parasites propagate their genes out of a give host into a new host. If the parasite’s means of genetic exit is the same as the host’s, namely the host’s gametes or spores. There will be relatively little conflict between the ‘interests’ of parasite and host genes.” (Dawkins 1982 p.222)

Here is a clear and distinct difference between symbiont and parasite from a work that makes little mention of religion. The implication is that we have a clear criterion of parasitism so that biologists can clearly resolve any question over whether a relationship is symbiotic of parasitic:

“… the real reason why snail [the host] genes stand to gain from the some events as each other,              while fluke (the parasite) genes stand to gain from a different set of events, is simply this: all                 snail genes share the same route into the next generation: snail gametes. All fluke genes, on the        other hand, must use a different route, fluke cercariae, to get into the next generation. It is this fact alone which unites snail genes against fluke genes and vice versa. … If it were the case that                  the parasite’s genes passed out of the host’s body inside the host’s gametes, things might be                       different. The interests of host genes and parasite genes might not be quite identical, but they                         would then be very much closer than in the case of fluke and snail. … Under such circumstances                         the interests of parasite and host would be likely to coincide to such an extent that it might                    become difficult for us to detect that a separate parasite existed at all.” (Ibid 222)

This is the “genetic parasite criterion”; the difference between symbiosis and parasitism derives from how the virus and host transmit their genes to the next generation. If we could adapt this criterion to the world of memeplexes, we could find a ‘meme parasite criterion’, and thus refute or confirm antitheism.

Defining the meme parasite criterion – the gene meme distinction.

We define the criterion thusly: If it transmits its memes through the same means as the host transmits its genes, then a symbiosis will evolve. On the other hand, if it transmits itself another route than the host, then some maladaptive relationship will result. A difficulty here results from the fact that we are mixing genes and memes. In the above example of the snail, both identity of both snails and flukes were defined in terms of genes. But religions are memes and humans are… what? It seems that humans are both genes and religions are memes, so at first glance this seems to favor a parasitic interpretation of religion. However, even though family and ethnicity are a very large part of who we are, our identities are not merely genetic. After all, life is really information – it’s not really about any particular form of matter or energy. Even a purely physicalistic philosophy of mind can allow the possibility of implementing a human mind in a completely artificial body without any human genes. In fact, something like this may be the only way to prevent the extinction of humanity at some time in the distant future. In this light, current humans are like a hybrid of apes and Von Neumann probes. This means that their adaptation is based on both genetic and memetic (cultural) inheritance. I think it’s valid to assume that cultural behavior (of which religion is a special case) has adaptive value.

We will define the meme parasite criterion thusly: If it transmits through the same means as its host, then a symbiosis will evolve, but if it transmits through another way, the parasitism will evolve. In my assumption both memes and genes have:

  1. ‘Interests’ – This means that they compete with each other for opportunities or resources and define a ‘fitness landscape’ for themselves.
  2. Various means to accomplish this;
    1. competition – religions clearly compete with each other.
    2. Symbiosis – It seems clear that relgions have at least some adaptive value for the genes of their adherents.
    3. Parasitism – it seems possible that religions could be parasitic on their adherents.

Applying the criterion.

To my knowledge, Dawkins has never explicitly applied this criterion to religion or other memeplex anywhere in his work. So here’s an attempt at a memetic parasite criterion that might accuse religion of parasitism:

Crucial importance attaches to the means by which parasites propagate their genes or memes out of a given host into a new host. If the parasite’s means of memetic exit is the same as the host’s gene’s, namely the host’s ____ or ____, there will be relatively little conflict between the ‘interests’ of parasite and host memes. … the real reason why human genes stand to gain from the some events as each other, while religious memes stand to gain from a different set of events, is simply this: all human genes share the same route into the next generation: human gametes. All religious memes, on the other hand, must use a different route, [whatever] to get into the next generation.

Notice how this does not quite work? There are so many ways to transmit memes than genes; lateral transmission seems more common in the memosphere than the biosphere. However, a the majority of our memes are transmitted from parent to child in parallel with genes. Language is like this, but it is also overwhelmingly common with religious memeplexes. If it were true that religion is overwhelmingly acquired directly from parents, then it would seem that parasitism would not be likely according to our above criterion. Until this writing, I had always assumed that ~99% of religions people were just born into their religion, but according to a quick Google search, it seems that the truth is more complex. From our perspective, this raises the possibility of religious meme –parasitism, but I do not think that this effect is as ubiquitous as most anti-religionists might allege. From this perspective, it seems that parasitism would be rare if all children kept the faith of their parents, but in any situation dominated by conversions, this might not hold. Does this apply to converts to Islam in the West? Perhaps, but I think a more better case can be made for various ‘cults’ that find fertile missionary fields in wealthy countries. The perfect examples of this are ‘New Age’ beliefs and Scientology. Both of these appeal to wealthy people, however, it is doubtful if a culture dominated by either would be able to create the prosperity that they prefer. But this is not at all what most anti-religious people are referring to in calling religion a meme-parasite; they clearly intend this to refer to early modern and premodern Cristendom as well as other civilizations dominated by one of the great world religions. However, these cases are where it cannot truthfully apply, since it is in these circumstances where genes and religious memes are transmitted from parent to child most consistently.


Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine. New York, Oxford UP, 2006.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene.  New York, Oxford UP, 1976.

______________. The Extended Phenotype.  New York, Oxford UP, 1999.

______________. The God Delusion.  New York, Oxford UP, 2006.

Dennet, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York, Touchstone, 1995.




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