In memetic theory, all successful memes have some sort of "virus protection" that keeps other memes from displacing them. In no other realm has there developed such a power memetic virus as in religion (in current usage, religion is actually a memeplex).
In fact, Richard Dawkins has long been arguing for religions as Viruses of the Mind:
That was condensed a bit, since Dawkins is both confrontation and verbose. He doesn't get into the virus's ability to protect itself from other viruses, but that is a major part of their power.
Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won't know it, and may even vigorously deny it. Accepting that a virus might be difficult to detect in your own mind, what tell-tale signs might you look out for? I shall answer by imaging how a medical textbook might describe the typical symptoms of a sufferer (arbitrarily assumed to be male).
1. The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as ``faith.''
2. Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith's being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence. Indeed, they may feel that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief (see below).
3. A related symptom, which a faith-sufferer may also present, is the conviction that ``mystery,'' per se, is a good thing. It is not a virtue to solve mysteries. Rather we should enjoy them, even revel in their insolubility.4. The sufferer may find himself behaving intolerantly towards vectors of rival faiths, in extreme cases even killing them or advocating their deaths. He may be similarly violent in his disposition towards apostates (people who once held the faith but have renounced it); or towards heretics (people who espouse a different --- often, perhaps significantly, only very slightly different --- version of the faith). He may also feel hostile towards other modes of thought that are potentially inimical to his faith, such as the method of scientific reason which may function rather like a piece of anti-viral software.
5. The patient may notice that the particular convictions that he holds, while having nothing to do with evidence, do seem to owe a great deal to epidemiology. Why, he may wonder, do I hold this set of convictions rather than that set? Is it because I surveyed all the world's faiths and chose the one whose claims seemed most convincing? Almost certainly not. If you have a faith, it is statistically overwhelmingly likely that it is the same faith as your parents and grandparents had. No doubt soaring cathedrals, stirring music, moving stories and parables, help a bit. But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe would have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place. Epidemiology, not evidence.
6. If the patient is one of the rare exceptions who follows a different religion from his parents, the explanation may still be epidemiological. To be sure, it is possible that he dispassionately surveyed the world's faiths and chose the most convincing one. But it is statistically more probable that he has been exposed to a particularly potent infective agent --- a John Wesley, a Jim Jones or a St. Paul. Here we are talking about horizontal transmission, as in measles. Before, the epidemiology was that of vertical transmission, as in Huntington's Chorea.7. The internal sensations of the patient may be startlingly reminiscent of those more ordinarily associated with sexual love. This is an extremely potent force in the brain, and it is not surprising that some viruses have evolved to exploit it. St. Teresa of Avila's famously orgasmic vision is too notorious to need quoting again. More seriously, and on a less crudely sensual plane, the philosopher Anthony Kenny provides moving testimony to the pure delight that awaits those that manage to believe in the mystery of transubstantiation.
For example, Christianity has hell as a deterrent against other beliefs or even disbelief. if you are at the right developmental level to be susceptible to this virus, the threat of hell is a great protection against other ideas (mind viruses).
Even Buddhism has its own style of virus protection, called karma. It's not as effective as hell, but it promises bad outcomes for bad behaviors. If we accumulate enough bad karma, it could impact future incarnations.
Psychology Today recently posted an article about the brand loyalty of religions, which is one of the elements of memetic theory. The article looks at some of the virus protections (such as death) that create "brand loyalty."
We are, by nature, virus hosts from our first moments on the earth. Imagine what a better place we could create if we all focused on teaching our children about love and compassion instead of a vengeful God and hell.
The Brand Loyalty of Religion is Unsurpassed.
For most brand managers, brand loyalty is a crucial metric of success. One way to measure brand loyalty is by gauging the extent of repeat purchases. Suppose that we were to keep track of the next ten purchases of soft drinks for consumers A and B. If consumer A buys Pepsi on each of the ten occasions whereas consumer B buys Fanta, Pepsi, and Coke three times each, and 7 Up on one occasion then we can conclude that consumer A displays greater brand loyalty within this particular product category. A natural extension is to then ask whether consumer A's unwavering brand loyalty and consumer B's variety seeking are situational-based or whether these preferences are manifestations of dispositional traits. Another issue of interest to marketers is whether brand loyalty for a particular product might be transmitted intergenerationally. If your parents always consumed Pepsi at home, does this increase your likelihood of becoming a diehard Pepsi drinker? This brings me to the key issue of today's post: which product garners the greatest amount of intergenerational brand loyalty? Well, the winner is miles ahead of the next contender. Religion rules the brand loyalty roost.
Most marketers would salivate like Pavlovian dogs at the thought of their products possessing an intergenerational brand loyalty score remotely close to that garnered by religion. In the social sciences, many academics are supremely excited if they have a model that explains 30% of the variance for the phenomenon under investigation. Well, your parents' religion is a near-perfect predictor of the religion that you'll call your own. In other words, intergenerational transmission of religious beliefs explains close to 100% of the variance in question. Hence, which religious narrative one believes (and in some instances is willing to die for) is completely driven by the "accidental" family to which one was born into.
Some religions provide alluring incentives against variety seeking (apostasy). . . DEATH. Remain a loyal customer or die. Of course, other religions are somewhat subtler in their attempts to maintain the brand loyalty of their flocks. Stay in the club and reap the rewards in heaven, or leave the club and prepare to fry in hell for eternity. These are some rather powerful key selling points!
One of the benchmarks for determining whether it is ethical to advertise to children is to ask the following question: What is the minimal age at which children have the cognitive capacity to understand the ulterior motives of advertisers, and accordingly to build cognitive defenses against such attempts? This approach is congruent with the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget who studied the cognitive developmental stages that children traverse. Whereas there are some cross-cultural differences in terms of the minimal legal age for targeting children, a common benchmark is eight years of age. Hence whilst it is unethical to advertise to young children who are otherwise cognitively unprepared to understand the persuasive intent of advertising messages, it is apparently perfectly moral and ethical to "advertise" one's religious beliefs to children shortly after they make their entrance into the world. It seems that divinely ordained products do not need to conform to the same ethical standards as those imposed on tobacco companies by the FTC, or those forced on movie producers (via movie ratings) by a committee mandated to enforce some fuzzy and ephemeral community standards. It is interesting to note that the law stipulates very specific guidelines as to when individuals can have sex, can vote, can get married, can drive, or can drink (as they are otherwise cognitively and emotionally unprepared to partake in the behaviors), yet they are fully "prepared" to be exposed to religious narratives straight out of the womb.
Imagine instilling positive memes instead of negative memes: love instead of fear, compassion instead of judgment, empathy instead of self-interest. What would such a world be like?
Wouldn't it be great to find out?