Religion as a Memeplex of Skilful Means

Here is an extended abstract of my future article

Recent legal attempts by scientologists, ‘pastafarians’ and ‘jedis’ to have their beliefs recognised as ‘religious’ have put the spotlight on how vaguely ‘religion’ is defined in law, and how experts struggle to describe and categorise the diversity of beliefs in the modern world. Formal definitions put forward by theologians and social scientists are often too god-centred, or too vague to apply meaningfully to individual cases. ‘Religion’ has now become an umbrella term and a refuge for those with any passionately-held beliefs to seek protection and immunity from discrimination and abuse. At the same time it is also seen as an easy source of potential tax breaks, and inevitably it is often an object of mockery and parody.

I propose that we need a more comprehensive definition of religion that can satisfactorily address the challenges of understanding religion in the 21st century, and to provide a consistent picture for lawmakers, philosophers and scientists as to what the substance and function of religion is, and what it is not.

By looking at recent and historical case law verdicts, certain key themes emerge – these cases, which often concern discrimination and coercion claims, skirt the boundaries of what ‘religious beliefs’ mean to passionate individuals. What seems crucial to identifying genuine religion is not only whether beliefs are genuinely and sincerely held, but also the strength and centrality of those beliefs for those individuals (i.e. their ultimate concern), which has a significant impact on how they act or indeed refuse to act. However, religion should not be seen as purely subjective – it cannot be something that exists just in the minds of one person.

By looking at the existing definitions by theologians and social scientists, the challenge to traditional theocentric definitions caused by non-theistic religions and new religious movements is obvious. However, the most insightful definitions, like those of the law courts, touch on both substantive and functional aspects, and several key themes emerge. Firstly, religions are systems of multiple symbols and ideas. Secondly, they contain an unverifiable and counterintuitive element at their core. Thirdly, they ultimately influence human motivations and actions on a very profound level.

I argue that the key to pulling all these threads together into a logical whole is found in combining two concepts; one ancient and one modern.

To begin, I discuss the Mahayana Buddhist concept of ‘skilful means’ – a uniquely pragmatic, goal orientated method of teaching. I look to Shin Buddhism as an example of a religion that seems to be self-conscious of the fact that once all the usual religious and symbolic content is stripped away, only skilful means remains. I discuss the origin of skilful means as a self-conscious revelation; how it uses unverifiable claims to achieve a goal, or transformation; and how all religions are to a lesser or greater extent types of transformative teaching tools, and therefore all types of skilful means.

The modern aspect of the definition I propose is that of the memeplex – a successfully self-grouping and self-replicating systems of ‘memes’ (uniquely human ideas, which are often altruistic and cooperative at their core). Once accepted and established in the human mind, the memeplex is self-sustaining and self-serving, and has an extremely powerful hold over the individual, and ultimately groups of individuals, often causing them to act in counterintuitive ways.

Drawing these ideas together, I propose that religion is a memeplex of skilful means. By this I mean that it is a self-replicating system of ideas and symbols with unverifiable claims or narratives that are designed (or naturally selected) to transform the behaviour of individuals and groups of people in significant and permanent ways, usually to the benefit of the system itself.  This definition describes both substantive (multiple related ideas and their unverifiability) and functional (transformative, group cooperation) aspects of religion. I also argue that thedefinition is neutral towards religious or supernatural claims.

Finally, I demonstrate that this definition provides a tangible means to analyse new and existing philosophies, movements and cults. The definition can be broken down to a three-point checklist providing a basic level guide to whether something can and should be considered ‘religion’. I apply this critically to contemporary movements from Scientology and ‘Pastafarianism’ to more contentious examples like nationalism, football and even Christmas. To assist in categorising these phenomena, I propose a matrix of religion and non-religion, where some of these beliefs can also be categorised as ‘memeplexes of non-skilful means’, ‘non-memeplexes of skilful means’, or ‘free memes’.

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