Cardboard Hexes
Nervously Challenging Orthodoxy

The Trouble with Memes

Tribbles_1Memes... cute cuddly ideas that purr gently when you stroke them. They spread everywhere, uncontrollably. Or is that tribbles? Memes are a fun metaphor - thinking about ideas in terms of evolutionary metaphors is an engaging pastime, and I have indulged in it myself. But it's not science, per se.

I believe that at some point in the future memetics will emerge as a valid scientific or philosophical field (more likely scientific, as the philosophers don't seem particular interested in the notion of memes at the moment) and the purpose of this post is not to discredit memetics. Indeed, at the moment it doesn't actually have an especial degree of credibility, so such an endeavour would be rather fruitless. Rather, the purpose of this post is to explore the issues with memetics, and to discover what this shows us about the volatile borderlands between science and religion.

The underlying concept of memes dates back to 1904 and the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Semon, who coined the word 'mneme' from the Greek word for memory, but it wasn't popularised until much later. The word 'meme' itself was coined by Richard Dawkins with his seminal work with the unfortunate title 'The Selfish Gene' - unfortunate, because it is this idea (this meme, if you prefer) that propagated and not the science contained within the book. "My genes made me do it!" has become a marginally legitimised excuse, thanks in part to the misunderstanding wrapped up in the ill-chosen phrase 'Selfish Gene'. Dawkins' writing on memes was criticised for all manner of reasons, some reasonable, some less so. Not least of these criticisms was the degree to which this stepped outside of science and into fanciful thinking.

The term 'meme' has stuck, though. But what exactly is a meme? There is not much agreement, and this alone is one of the criticisms leveled at memetics.

In casual usage, a meme denotes an idea which includes within it a method for virulent self propagation - like a chain letter which emotionally or otherwise threatens its recipient to transmit it further afield. This casual definition of meme is perfectly usable, and will survive for a considerable period of time, I believe. It's nice to have a word to describe a particularly virulent idea. It's worth noting that the model of ideas as viruses (or language as a virus - the gap between an idea and a word is relatively trivial) predates the word 'meme' by quite a wide margin, and so in this regard the idea inherent in the word 'meme' isn't new - it just traveled much more readily when it could package itself into a single word.

For those hoping for memetics to find its feet, the definition of meme is more commonly the smallest unit of cultural information. For me, this is already problematic in a scientific context. When talking science (and with due reference to Popper and Kuhn), I expect objectivity, testability and falsifiability - in the absence of these things, we're dealing with philosophy or something similar. But wait, let's not be too hasty, as there is indeed something measurable which qualifies (potentially) as the smallest unit of cultural information: a word.

Everything that we think and do is expressible in words in some manner. In the same way that 'meme' is a synonym for 'idea', I believe one can choose to define 'meme' as a synonym for 'word' (although there are other choices, of course). What about ideas for which there is no word? I believe that such ideas are still expressible as words, even if no word has yet been coined. Indeed, the speed at which words which describe ideas that are already known spread (like 'meme' itself) suggests such a model. I don't want to dig too far into this corner, as this will turn into a discussion of philosophy of language. Indeed, I believe that philosophy of language is more useful to us than memetics at the moment, but that's beside the point (and is categorically not an argument against memetics - explore everything! The valuable ideas will survive).

What about non-humans? If dolphins and apes have cultural elements that persist (i.e. they have memes), how can 'word' be used to identify the smallest unit of cultural information in this context? I would answer that dolphins and apes and in fact almost all animals have their own languages, even if those languages are only internal representations (private languages). More than that, however, words are pretty common in the world of animals - even meerkats seem to have words for identifying the nouns they encounter.

This isn't an argument against memetics, of course, merely a suggestion that memetics might end up incorporating or at least bordering upon the science of language. Memetics might end up covering more ground, though. For instance, there are processes that are learned in a manner quite different to language which might be better dealt with on their own terms, assuming we produce a model sufficient to the task.

So what's the problem?

The problem is the inconsistency with which the nascent field of memetics has been treated with respect to other fringe sciences, and the dogmatic religious forces that have organically 'conspired' to label memetics as a "protoscience" when other fields with considerably more rigorous scientific methods are dismissed with the pejorative (and largely ill defined) term "pseudoscience".

You might at this point legitimately wonder what on Earth I am talking about...

Firstly, I must address a common trend in Western thinking which is to equate the word 'religion' with the word 'theism'. I believe this relates to the dominance of the three monotheistic religions in this part of the world - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. People form their internal representation of words by observation and experience, and therefore it is not surprising that this has happened. But of course, there are polytheistic religions (lower path Hinduism, neo-Paganism), non-theistic religions (Buddhism, upper-path Hinduism), agnostic religions (Discordianism, formal agnosticism, Zen Buddhism) and atheistic religions (Buddhism in some interpretations, Humanism). Religion is a very broad term.

Einstein believed (as I do) that there need be no fundamental conflict between science and religion. The domain of science (derived knowledge) and the domain of religion (metaphysics and ethics) do not significantly overlap. Science will never be able to offer anything in religion's domain... but of course, some religious people do attempt to perform the reverse operation - letting religion dictate scientific conclusions, in particular creation scientists (theists) and materialistic humanists (atheists). The former, I believe, have very little credibility and are barely worth our concern (besides, they are an excellent source of criticisms which can be used to refine our understanding of evolution). The latter, however, appear to have an inexorable grip over science - and they are guilty of the exact same scientific faux pas as the creation scientists, which is letting their prior beliefs dictate their scientific conclusions.

This leads us neatly back to Dawkins and his original discussion of memes. Almost immediately after introducing the concept of a meme, Dawkins used it to attack religions in a manner that was philosophically infantile and scientifically unsound. Religions, Dawkins argued, were parasitic memes. His belief was that we should cast off religions and adopt the One True Way, the belief that Science trumps God, and that materialistic humanism is the only world view which is Big T True. Had this viewpoint been advanced from a theistic religious viewpoint, his credibility would have been forfeit; but because the religious viewpoint that informed him was materialistic humanism, he only had to defend himself from philosophers who were thankfully waiting in the wings to apply some wisdom. Dawkins' writing since has become less naive.

The definition of a parasite is that it lives at the expense of the host - therefore in declaring religion a 'parasitic meme', Dawkins pre-supposes that religion provides no benefit to the practitioner. But how could any scientist measure this? This was not a scientific statement at all, but a statement of Dawkins' prejudices against theism. At no point does he take an objective viewpoint and include his own religion - materialistic humanism - in the discussion. In short, it was as if Dawkins was saying "my religious beliefs are wonderful, but your religious beliefs are parasites." We should not accept such religious intolerance in anybody, but especially not in a scientist of some esteem.

Notice also that Dawkins was using meme in the casual context of an 'idea virus', not in the more (recent) rigorous definition as a minimal unit of cultural information - since no-one would dispute that religions are cultural information. I personally don't find 'virus' to be an entirely pejorative term. I suspect that viruses are actually the chief agent for introducing genetic novelty - by transferring the more rapidly altering introns DNA fragments (c.f. neutral theory) and 'installing' them as genes (what I have termed the Cut and Paste hypothesis), and therefore have a beneficial role in evolution. The evidence for this includes the virus responsible for mammals having the capacity to give birth to live young and the glycoprotein in antarctic cod which appears to have originated in introns DNA. However, since I rarely present my views in terms of the dominant scientific paradigm, no-one has taken this idea seriously. Not to worry. If it has any merit, someone with more credibility will doubtless explore it. We don't own ideas (or memes, if you prefer) - we merely host them.

This bias towards materialistic humanism is, I believe, the dominant religious paradigm inside science at the moment. In an ideal world, there would be no religious paradigm inside science at all - it would be entirely agnostic. Isn't this the ultimate goal for science, that those employing it will begin each inquiry with no preconceived beliefs?

I see no particular problem with memetics being afforded the status of a "protoscience", recognising that it might one day be a legitimate scientific field. We should also recognise the possibility that it might never be a legitimate scientific field, though - otherwise we cannot claim to be viewing the situation with an agnostic, objective eye.

However, there are a large number of fringe scientific fields which are not afforded this gracious luxury, and are instead attacked as pseudoscience, an ill defined term which appears to mean "this violates my belief system and causes cognitive dissonance which I will alleviate by making it something I can dismiss out of hand".

Let me take one field as an example: parapsychology. Let me preface this part of the discussion by saying I am agnostic about psi (or anomalous information transfer) and related phenomena - I have studied various texts from both sides of the debate and have reached no firm conclusions. I tend to side with the quirky Libertarian intellectual Robert Anton Wilson who observed that every study which set out to prove the existence of psi succeeded in its goal and every study which set out to disprove the existence of psi succeeded in its goal. There are many more studies in the former category than the latter, however.

(I also want to observe that by even mentioning parapsychology I am opening myself up for the same kind of blind religious intolerance as happened when I posted an old essay of mine exploring the topic of evolution. Because to an uncritical eye, it looked like I was a creationist - which I have never been - and therefore I must be resisted and discredited, as many materialistic humanists have greater religious intolerance than most theists.)

Given that there are reports of anomalous information transfer, it would seem reasonable to have a field of science to investigate those reports. It could be that there is some unusual behaviour which is currently inexplicable (but which future models might explain), or it could turn out to be a psychological phenomena with no violation of current scientific models, or it could turn out to reveal flaws in our statistical methods. Either way, there is something to investigate! And yet many scientists dismiss parapsychology as a field entirely. No comfortable label of "protoscience" for parasychology... instead, it is generally dismissed as "pseudoscience".

But how can any genuinely agnostic scientist dismiss any field in advance? To do so is to allow prior beliefs to dictate conclusions. How could it be acceptable to dismiss certain concepts if the prior beliefs are materialistic, but unacceptable to use prior beliefs if they are theistic? I contend that neither is acceptable.

It gets worse. The most examined experiment in parapsychology, the ganzfeld experiment, has received substantial peer review. Indeed, so complete has the scrutiny of this experiment been that it is arguably the most rigorous scientific protocol devised - and still, the conclusion of the experiment apparently remains positive. (The Wikipedia quotes a hit rate of 34% with odds against chance of 45,000 to 1).

But many die-hard Skeptics (and by sceptic with a k and a capital S it is to be understood that we are talking primarily about religious fundamentalists whose religion is materialistic humanism) continued to dispute the experiment, even up to the point of saying (when all other criticisms had been exhausted) that it must be the result of fraud.

If, when peer review and reasonable criticism is exhausted, a scientist is forced to claim fraud to dispute the results, there can be absolutely no doubt that the scientist in question has already made up their mind, and the experimental evidence will not sway them. Such a person is guilty of the exact same errors as a creation scientist - they have let their prior beliefs dictate their conclusions. If the only means to dismiss an experiment is to claim fraud, then science has completely lost its claim to objectivity (if, indeed, it ever had it).

This, then, is the trouble with memes - the field of memetics is subject to far less critical review than other fringe sciences because nothing in the tenets of memetics violates the beliefs of materialistic humanism. It's not that memetics has a problem, but rather that the scientific community has a problem: it would rather attack belief systems it does not share, than focus on the goal of separating the scientific method from prior beliefs - because to do so, materialistic humanists might have to accept that they are just as at risk from having prior beliefs dictate their conclusions as theists. And that, apparently, is unacceptable.

If the goal of memetics is to view culture as an ecology of ideas (or of words) subject to the principles of natural selection, then we should probably conclude that religions are highly evolved ideas, subject as they are to several millennia of natural selection. That the people who practice religions have survived to this day suggests mutual benefit - symbiosis if you will - between religion and its practitioners. Perhaps the ironic end to the alleged war between science and religion will be that memetics might demonstrate that having diverse belief systems is an asset to a culture, and put an end to all attempts by one fundamentalist belief system - theistic or atheistic - to propagate a monoculture of ideas, or beliefs - or, if you prefer, of memes.


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Memetics was created as a marketing campaign, if I remember correctly, and has simply spun completely out of control. I see no reason to grant it an equal ranking in scholarship with linguistics and communication.

I think you need to spend some more time hanging out with real atheists if you insist on labeling us as religious fundamentalists. The basis of atheism is essentially what you point out as science: it's not that we believe there is no god, it's that we don't Believe there is a god. That's an important difference.

Now, many atheists such as Dawkins and myself then apply basic scientific and statistical reasoning to the problem and feel safe stating that there isn't, in fact, any god, but that's not an essential part of our atheism.

Calling us religious is insulting. We're not religious. That's the whole point of atheism.

I have plenty of friends who are atheists, Thomas, although I have no idea if they meet your criteria for "real atheism". Also, I think you're confusing atheism and humanism; humanism is generally considered an atheist religion. This is the religion I am talking about above. Atheism is (generally speaking) the rejection of theism i.e. god - not the rejection of religion. See also paragraph 13 above ("Firstly, I must address...").

Thanks for sharing your comments!

Bravo! May your flames be minimal for another very soundly reasoned post.

With all this intelligent design hullabalo going on, I keep saying that to confuse the domains of faith and science is to denigrate both.

Thanks Jack! I feel like I take my life into my hands every time I post on topics like these, but for some reason I just can't seem to stay quiet on the philosophy of science and of religion.

Have to run at the moment, but you might want to check out The Electric Meme, a book which seeks to give the concept of meme a proper scientific grounding. Hope I'm not misremembering the title.

Your comments about language are, in fact, strongly supported by the language of your post. You call things "religions" which I would call "philosophies", for example. This minor difference in language is indicative of a deep difference in philosophy.

There are three things I would argue about with your post. Pardon the length...

First, there is no such thing as "science did" or "science feels". Science cannot feel, it is an ideal, a process. There is a conglomerate of scientists which feel specific ways thanks to a shared culture. Shared meme complex, if you prefer. Or, shared "preference for specific linguistic elements", if you prefer. Functionally, they are all equivalent.

This means that it isn't "Science" which is calling these various fields pseudoscience. It's scienTISTS. People. It might not sound like an important point, but you point out, how we use which words defines what we think.

The second point is that "parapsychology" and the "scientific" study of the supernature are not "pseudosciences" because they disagree with "our" "religion". They are pseudoscience because the experiments in them are bad science. Since nearly all (as in, 99+%) of these experiments are bad science, it is naturally assumed that the next one is ALSO bad science. That's when "pseudoscience" is assigned instead of "soft science" or "protoscience".

The last point is that in many hypotheses, memes are, as you point out, not owned. "Parasitic meme" would therefore not refer to its interaction with the person thinking it: it would refer to its interaction with the "memetic ecosystem" of the society as a whole. And, depending on your values, religion could very well be considered a parasite on society.

"Since nearly all (as in, 99+%) of these experiments are bad science, it is naturally assumed that the next one is ALSO bad science."

Wouldn't it be more scientific to say that one assumes a high probability that the next one is ALSO bad science?

Don't mind me, I'm not being as serious as this post topic undoubtedly deserves.

There's a book called The Electric Meme which attempts to explain how memes could physically exist in the brain.

It's a bit convoluted, an absurd hypothesis justified by the butchery of modern neuroscience. But an interesting read, if you can get through it. Easier to read if you've already read a few brain books.


"First, there is no such thing as 'science did' or 'science feels'. Science cannot feel, it is an ideal, a process."

You're right, of course. I'm not sure where I said this above, but I'll try to be more careful in the future!

"They are pseudoscience because the experiments in them are bad science."

I took two Science degrees (astrophysics and computer science), and one postgraduate degree. I qualify as a scientist, when I need to. I have examined the more reputable parapsychology experiments and found nothing about them which I would consider to be bad science. Strange science, for sure, but consistent with the scientific method. Observations... hypothesis... experiment... reproducible. Double blind as well. By all means enlighten me as to what is bad science in the ganzfeld experiment, as I don't see it myself. Even the Wikipedia has no big red octagon on the ganzfeld page! :)

"And, depending on your values, religion could very well be considered a parasite on society"

Yes, depending on your values... So what was Dawkins doing pushing his value system in a book on science? :)

And finally, yes, there is some ambiguity about the use of the word 'religion'. I decided to pick a definition and run with it. My earlier posts on philosophy of religion dig into this in more detail. You could just as well use 'philosophies' where I have used religion, if you prefer. I prefer not to for reasons that are too verbose to pack into a comment.

Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!

Hm, I read your post wrong - you never said "science did". If I make such an error, don't humor me. I'd rather be an idiot for a minute than an idiot forever.

Which experiments are you referring to? I have seen very few experiments which qualify as good science, and those generally produce results well within the boundaries of luck.

To be honest, I don't want to dig into the whole parapsychology issue too deeply here. I was nervous even about mentioning it. I'll just say that on patient examination of the evidence I feel that there are people working in the field who are at least as credible as those working in, say, evolutionary psychology.

One thing I forgot to mention in the post was James Randi. Can anyone else spot the inherent contradiction in offering a one million dollar prize for anyone who provides evidence of the paranormal? How can any such person *possibly* claim impartiality when they're fronting a millian dollar stake! It beggars the mind.

Well, as to your dissection of memetics, you're spot on. It's not a science, but maybe it can become one. :)


Just because Randi offers the prize (and theoretically has something at stake) doesn't mean that he's incapable of being impartial. The prize is held by a trust company for him, and I believe the judgement is not done by Randi himself.

More telling than the prize is how few people appear to be confident enough in their paranormal abilities to attempt to claim it.

The Wikipedia entry for the Ganzfeld experiment itself links to several skeptical entries that appear to discredit the parapsychological experiments. I'd say the evidence is far from settled as credible--but I also think I know how you feel about evo psych. Is that a sly remark I see hiding there in that comparison? (grin)

Somewhat unrelated, but I don't know if using Wikipedia as a reference source is very credible. It can be good for a brief primer, but not so much for specific factual accuracy (unless its a Star Wars or Star Trek article.)

I agree, James. I only use the Wikipedia for this sort of thing because things that are not accepted by the orthodox scientific community have a big red octagon on them. It's a controversy detector. :) There's no doubt that the Wikipedia was built by geeks for geeks. :)

I'm the third person to mention Robert Aunger's "The Electric Meme", but the book does lay down a thesis that the basic unit of the meme is the electrical pattern. Therefore, its possible to prove or disprove that memes exist, based on nuerological methods, though not nessecarily the ones Aunger describes in his book. This means that memes have existed since the most basic nervous systems long into the past (hundreds of millions of years) and are older than culture, which is only a few dozen million years old if you consider primate-equal intelligences having social cultures.

So, since memes are physically grounded in the electrical pattern, its possible to talk about them in (not nessecarily rigorous, for our purposes) causal terms, as things that determine to some degree the behavior of a physical system such as a human, a computer, or a chimpanzee. That also memes, er, means, that its possible to consider gameplay content, the player's reactions to that content, and the software engineering patterns involved in supporting that interaction, in memetic terms. Thats where the theory is really useful for us, as game designers, and I wouldn't be suprised if the interactive medium were a major catalyst in making memetics a more rigorous and substantial science.

Your question of whether Memetics is science misses the point. The better question is whether it is a useful concept worthy of development.

I understand memes to be a congealed conceptual package that elicits a set of responses to a culturally specific audience.
So all words are memes but not all memes are words.

When memes get associated with institutions that benefit from them such as organized religion that strengthens them. We could say a political party is not people, but a set of memes that resonate with voters.

I say it is a useful concept that can not be validated by the scientific method, but the test of explanitory untility

Al Rodbell

Al, thanks for commenting!

Your suggestion that this post is about whether memetics is a science, and that this misses the point, slightly misses the point of this post, which is contained in the paragraph beginning "This, then, is the trouble with memes..."

In terms of 'all words are memes, but not all memes are words', I would agree. A handshake, for instance, is not a word but could be considered a meme. But as I mention here, I was not suggesting an equivalence between 'word' and 'meme', but demonstrating that one can express the concept of a meme in other ways.

"We could say a political party is not people, but a set of memes that resonate with voters."

This is a lovely statement! Of course, political parties change their memes with such regularity that one wonders if a political party is anything other than a convenience. :)

"I say it is a useful concept that can not be validated by the scientific method, but the test of explanatory utility"

We are all free to think and believe anything we like - whether it be scientific "Truth", angels, ether, phrenology or memes. In this regard, there's no need to defend the concept of a meme - anyone who wishes to use this idea will always be free to do so!

But I am fascinated by what you mean by 'explanatory utility' here. (I will assume this phrase can be taken at face value, but if you want to point me to a specific interpretation, by all means provide a link!)

If explanatory utility is a test, then it can only be subjective. Surely each individual is free to judge the explanatory utility of any idea.

A brief thought experiment. Suppose I invent a concept which I will call the Blue Imp. The Blue Imp is responsible for all phenomena for which there is currently no explanation. When an explanation is found, it is because the Blue Imp creates the mechanisms which are used to explain the phenomena and then places them in the minds of the people providing the explanation. Does the Blue Imp not have tremendous explanatory utility, in that one can use her to explain all unknown phenonema?

Of course, many people would have difficulty believing in the Blue Imp, but that does not relate to its explanatory utility. :)

Thanks once again for this comment; I hadn't looked at this post in a while, and I didn't realise how much it connected with the issue of Skeptics which I am about to write a post about.

Best wishes!


Thanks for your serious consideration of my "explanitory utility" justification for using the word meme. I was introduced to this by Dennett's "Breaking the Spell"

He certainly overstates this concept with his virus analogy. Viruses have evolved along with other organisms, so they do have a type of life force of their own.

The danger in use of memes is that of reification, that a simple explanitory device that ads a dimension of understanding, becomes the entire explanation.

Perhaps the most complelling argument against memetics is that it reduces the difficult lifetime work of understanding to mastering a "technique." Ultimately that weakens the intellectual enterprise.

I think I will stick to making specific arguments about real issues that will either be respectfully considered or rejected. I can do without using the word "meme" as it sounds pretentious and dosn't really advance my case.

Regards, if you ever read this drop me a line
Shit, will this get on google??

Al: thanks for coming back and checking in on this! I really enjoyed your first comment, and it's interesting to see how your position has matured in the interim. Best wishes!


Only scanned this one, I'm afraid, but a couple of points occur to me. I'm in broad sympathy with what you say here. Is there such a thing as a unit of cultural information? What would such a unit look like? Memetics seems far too reductionistic when taken literally like this. Is a culture even made up of information, as opposed to say a set of practices and relationships?

I take issue, though, with equating religion and metaphysics. Many religions have a metaphysical strand, but it's rather rarefied. Much more important is, arguably, the social aspect of religion - people gather to worship or chant or perform rituals. Whatever else they do, these actions serve to bind a community together. This has nothing to do with questions of truth or philosophy or a worldview. It has more in common with going to the theatre (or even a football match). The emphasis on religion as a coherent set of beliefs about the world owes a lot to several centuries of Protestantism.

This is also a major objection to Dawkins' public pronouncements on religion - he always acts as if religion is just failed science, an outdated explanation of natural phenomena. He never even examines this assumption, as far as I know, he simply takes it for granted. This is one possible interpretation of religion, but a problematic one that is very far from self-evident.

Theo: Since writing this piece, I've studied more on the issue of defining religion. I've largely sided with Ninian Smart's eight part definition, which includes the social element you allude to here. However, I work mostly with a more concise definition which was established here. This sets aside social and material issues on the assuption that all belief systems, religious or otherwise, have a social and material dimension and therefore this doesn't form much of a criteria of demarkation.

I don't really agree with your linking this metaphysical element with Protestantism; the Eastern religions have a clear element of metaphysics tied up in their formulation and practice. I don't believe the metaphysical elements of religions can be ignored.

I am open to the idea that by de-emphasising the social elements I have taken too abstract a stance on the issue of religion - I rather expected this criticism to have been raised before now, to be honest. :)

You mention a football match, and indeed, this is pertinent to my current position: sport clearly carries the social and material role attributed to religion, yet lacks the metaphysical, ethical or mythological elements which I am claiming demark religion. More on this issue in the future, I expect.

I agree with your assesment with Dawkins problem being his insistence on evaluating religion solely as an attempt to explain phenomena. As I have said before, Dawkins is a competent scientist but he is an infantile philosopher. He admits his lack of philosophical understanding, but seems to refuse to consider that he might benefit from studying the field.

In many ways, it is this attitude (from Dawkins and others) which has driven me to my meagre attempts to popularise philosophy. :)

Best wishes!


Not so meagre. Blogs like this prove there is more to the internet than shopping.

I certainly wouldn't dismiss the metaphysical elements of religion - and I'm aware of the extremely subtle philosophical traditions within Buddhism and Vedanta. My remark on Protestantism really refers to a tradition within western scholarship on Asian religions, which took books and philosophical tracts to be the sine qua non of religion, and poo-pood everything else as superstition - rather condescendingly. This attitude was once prevalent in writings on Buddhism, for instance. Modern Buddhists were thought to have obscured the rational purity of the Buddha's teaching with dark clouds of superstition and ritual. I think Ninian Smart was in part responding to this tradition with his eight dimensions - really not a bad approach. In effect he's saying that the best we can do is make a list. What you get, it seems to me, is a nexus of concerns, including the social, spiritual, metaphysical - and some of these are necessarily vague.

Comparing it to football was a bit flippant. The comparison to theatre is less so. There's something mysterious about people gathering in a darkened room to watch actors performing unreal actions. Why do it? A lot of 20C theatrical practitioners saw theatre in intensely religious terms - Grotowski's Poor Theatre outstandingly (even the name!). Religion outside the Church, outside any religious tradition. Not a contradiction in terms, although it ought to be. Which means something has been left unsaid here, and it is probably the most important thing of all.



The latest London Review of Books has an excellent article by Terry Eagleton on Dawkins' shortcomings when he gets onto the subject of God. Eagleton's characterisation of Christian doctrine is also problematic in places, but he's deliberately trying to give the best possible account of it - on the grounds that if you want to take it on, you should confront it at its best and strongest, not at its most contemptible. Anyway, essential reading. Do you have an email address?

Extraordinarily interesting post, which I've linked to on my blog. I think the atheists' stigma against the word "religion," equating it solely with theistic "irrationality" has gone a bit too far myself. Really liked your take here and your courage for playing with fire.

Theo: I do have an email address, but since I receive 50 spam a day I have to hide it. :( You can get a contact address for my company at; email this - it will get forwarded to me. Thanks!

Melinda: Many thanks! I think I went beyond playing with fire when I decided to take it upon myself to broker peace between conflicting systems of metaphysics. :) I probably entered internet kookdom at this point, but not to worry! One must never hold back from what one feels is necessary just because other people will think you're weird, that's my policy. :)

If you get a moment, please check out some of the philosophy posts listed in the sidebar here; you may well find some other things of interest.

Best wishes!

...Is "off" a TV channel?
If there are no supernatural beliefs in a so-called religion then it is not a religion, just a moral philosophy. If there are supernatural beliefs in a religion then it is, in fact, contradictory to science. You cannot equate "materialistic humanists" with people who believe in things that are not true; that's just dishonest spin. Talk about false equivalence...
Also, the cost of religion can very well be observed. People refuse to help each other people they think God/karma/whatever made is punishing them. People refuse to help themselves because they think God/karma/whatever is punishing them. People oppose scientific discoveries that would benefit humanity and the whole biosphere because of some religious belief that isn't founded on anything logically sound or scientifically proven. Even when people are "helped" by religion, it's really no different from a delusion that prevents them from facing reality and actually solving any problems, except that psychology conveniently avoids having to admit that religious superstitions are delusions because they define things as being unhealthy based on how abnormal they are, not by how counterproductive they are. Maybe "parasite" is the wrong word, but I don't have a better word for "something that gives the planet a net loss".
The belief that there is only one right way to do things is not a religious belief if it does not hinge on the belief in unproven beings or forces, and is not comparable to religion if it based on actual scientific truths instead of imagined supernatural truths. "Scientifically-discovered truth is the ultimate truth" is not a religious belief, it's a non-negotiable fact. Bias toward objective truth, against supernatural explanations for things, is not a bias you should be trying to get rid of.
Science is the OPPOSITE of religion because religion hinges on faith and science hinges on questioning things. Even morality I would consider the opposite of religion--religion is doing what you're told regardless of what is right, morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told. Stop sanitizing religion--much of the world is delusional, including you if you genuinely believe that a man whose belief system has no place for religion is the same as a religious person whose belief system has no place for another religion that is equally nonsensical.

Thanks for your comment - although this 15 year old piece is quite a deep dive in the archive, making me wonder how on earth you found it! :) I was really only finding my feet in 2005, my philosophy became far more sophisticated over the next decade. But the core idea of this piece isn't something I disagree with now, even though I would never write about it in these sort of terms today. I made my peace with Dawkins; I'm actually immensely grateful to him these days - he gave me a push I desperately needed, albeit away from where he was standing. :)

I'm afraid I don't find your understanding of the relationship between science and religion to be very convincing. Your definition of religion seems to be expressly skewed towards the Abrahamic religions, is entirely pejorative, and also seems to completely ignore the Dharmic religions or other kinds of traditional religions. If you have any interest in understanding religious diversity, I recommend Ninian Smart's Dimensions of the Sacred, but reading your comment I doubt that you do. You ought to be aware, however, that you will have trouble making strong, valid arguments against 'religion' using a definition that is just a caricature of (I'm guessing) Christianity/Islam since you will not often be talking about the same thing with those you hope to influence.

Also, the idea that science and religion are opposites is very tricky to maintain, given the way that the contemporary sciences grow out the influence of Christianity on European thought.

You are free to your own beliefs about these issues, of course, but I would encourage you to follow your own admonition and think further, and perhaps also with the involvement of a more diverse set of viewpoints wherever possible. As someone who clearly has a great love of the sciences, maybe you could start with Einstein's writings on the subject (mentioned in this piece)...? The World as I See It would be the place to start. From the preface of the first edition:

"Albert Einstein believes in humanity, in a peaceful world of mutual helpfulness, and in the high mission of science. This book is intended as a plea for this belief at a time which compels every one of us to overhaul his mental attitude and his ideas."

That strikes me as a maxim you might be able to stand behind!

Well, I guess I'm jumping to the assumption that you want to do further reading, and if you don't that's fair enough too. Find your own path. But I don't think we can have much of a conversation from where you are at the moment.

I would, however, cheerfully retract any claim that all kinds of positivistic positions (such as materialistic humanism) should be understood as a religion. These days, I'd prefer to describe them as non-religions. But I would still echo Mary Midgley's warning that "the evils which have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution."

Thanks for commenting,


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