Religions of Fear and Hate

Memes and Malevolent Mind Viruses

" dangerous in a man as rabies in a dog"  - Winston Churchill

Memes - the skeptic's dissection of religion
Among many anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers, it has recently become fashionable to dismiss all religions as memes -  parasitic mental processes which propagate in the same manner as chain letters [Dawkins 1989, Dennett 1995].  In this view, religious belief is a self-perpetuating delusion. A meme (rhymes with 'dream') may be defined as any self-referential belief system which contains within itself the instructions for its own propagation. Memes are often described as the cultural equivalents of computer viruses.

A meme carries exactly the same fear-driven psychological motivation as a chain letter - "If you propagate me then something nice will happen, if not then something horrible will happen". In order to justify themselves against attack by reason, memes place absolute reliance on faith, which is seen as being superior to reason. They also contain self-referential or circular claims to the truth such as "This meme says it is the divine truth. Since it is the divine truth whatever its says must be true. Therefore it must be divine truth because it says so and all competing memes must be the work of the Devil".

These two types of self-referential statement "propagate me" and "I am the only truth" provide the driving force for memes to invade the minds of their hosts.  In addition, many memes contain the instructions "Help people who believe in this meme, attack people who do not". These commands being the ultimate cause of all religious hatred, wars, pogroms and persecutions throughout the centuries. 

The general defining features of all memes can thus be seen to be self-referential 'closed-loop' type of  circular statements,  and a strong tendency towards hatred and intolerance.

The science of the study of memes, their internal structures and modes of propagation is known as memetics (by analogy to genetics - how biological entities propagate themselves).

More detailed analysis will usually show the following features:
Like a virus such as rabies a successful meme must perform two actions:

-  Overpower the resistance of its host.
-  Bring about the conditions for its spread.

To establish itself in the mind of its host it will use some or all of the following mechanisms:

[1] Promise heaven for belief. This may involve frustrating the host's normal sexual urges and  redirecting them into sexual fantasies of the hereafter.

[2] Threaten eternal punishment in hell for disbelief.

[3] Boost the believers' egos by telling them they are 'chosen' or superior to believers in false memes.

[4] Disable the faculties of disbelief ('immune response') by claiming that faith is superior to reason.

[5] Establish itself as the One True Meme, usually by some sort of holy book containing a circular self-referential argument such as:

X is the one true meme. We know X is the one true meme because The Source of Universal Truth has approved X. We know The Source of Universal Truth has approved X,  because X contains statements which say so. We know what X says is true because X is the one true meme.

Once it has parasitised the mind of its host, a meme needs to propagate itself. A successful meme will contain instructions for some or all of the following:

[6] Holy war - convert or kill all unbelievers.

[7]  Intimidation and terrorism - threaten and discriminate against unbelievers.

[8]  Enforced social isolation or even death to apostates. (An apostate is a host which has cured itself of a meme-infection. It is especially dangerous to the meme because it might pass on meme-resistance to others).

[9]  Fecundism - encourage true believers to breed faster than believers in false memes.

[10]  Censorship - prevent rival memes from reaching potential hosts (a theological doctrine known as 'Error has no rights') and forbid rational analysis of the meme itself.

[11]  Disinformation - spread lies about rival memes.

So is Buddhism just another meme?
The meme critique may or may not apply to other belief systems, but does it apply to Buddhism?  Taking the above points in turn:

[1 and 2] There are no threats of hell or promises of heaven attached to being a Buddhist as opposed to being a non-Buddhist. The term 'Buddhist' is a mere label and has no inherent existence. The condition of future lives is determined by actions of body, speech and mind and not by religious affiliation. If our religion encourages universal compassion and  positive actions and states of mind then it is doing its job. If it causes hatred, fear, division and pride then it isn't working and maybe we should try something else. Buddhism does not make use of the psychological blackmail techniques which are said to be characteristic of memes.

[3]  Just sticking the Buddhist label on yourself doesn't automatically make you superior to non-Buddhists. In fact, in most forms of Buddhism the belief that one is superior to others, for whatever reason, is seen as a dangerous delusion.

[4] Buddhism does not attempt to suppress reason by dogma. Unlike most other religions, Buddhism isn't so much about things to believe, as things to do. It is a technology of mind improvement. This is why Buddhists often refer to themselves as practictioners rather than believers. The Buddha told his students to trust their own experience of the effectiveness of the teachings, and not believe things just because he said so.

[5]  Buddhism does NOT claim to be the one and only valid spiritual path (a teaching known as 'exclusivism' in other belief-systems). It is NOT based on claims of divine authority. Buddha never claimed to be divine or sent from God. His teachings are to be judged by their effectiveness in promoting peace and spiritual realisations, rather than unverifiable claims to their origin.



Most religions teach that they are the one true path to salvation and all unbelievers are cast into hell. This is a doctrine known as exclusivism.  Buddhism is not exclusivist. Any person guided in their activities by compassion is regarded as following a beneficial spiritual path.

Unfortunately,  in Christianity exclusivism went to extreme lengths with many denominations (at one time) claiming that they were the one true faith and the other denominations of Christianity were corrupt (or even in league with anti-Christ).   This situation has improved during the past 50 years, but 'Extra ecclesiam nulla salus ' ( No salvation outside (our) Church)  is still the official policy of the Vatican.

However his does raise an interesting scenario. Presumably a Salvation Army officer who   devoted her life to rescuing drug addicts and alcoholics would be regarded as damned for all eternity by traditional Catholic theologians. A Buddhist, on the other hand, would regard such a person as an advanced spiritual practitioner - a Bodhisattva or possibly even a manifestation of Buddha Tara . (One of the more surprising teachings of Mahayana Buddhism is that Buddhas can appear in whatever form is  beneficial to sentient beings, and Buddhas needn't necessarily be Buddhist!) . So, taken to its logical conclustion, Christian exclusivism would require one Christian to regard a fellow Christian as damned, while a Buddhist would recognise her as a saint.

As a further antidote to exclusivism, Buddhists are required to rejoice in the virtues of all beings - Buddhist and otherwise.

[6,7 and 8] Buddhism does not believe in using hatred, war or terrorism to further its cause and does not persecute former Buddhists who have changed their religion.

[9] Neither does it encourage ecologically disastrous population policies (or lack of policies).

[10 and 11] Buddhists have no need to suppress, censor or misrepresent the teachings of other religions, as Buddhist philosophy is totally rational and quite capable of withstanding criticism from other belief systems. In fact, Buddhism appears to be the only spiritual system which can provide counterarguments to modern  materialism. Neither is Buddhism even slightly corroded by what Dennett (1995) claims to be the universal spiritual acid of Darwinism.

Fanaticism and fundamentalism
Buddhism recognises that one of the most destructive delusions is excessive attachment to any view, which will thus appear virtuous and right for all people.  The harm that can be done by excessive attachment to ideologies and abstractions is far greater than that caused by attachment to wealth or material objects.  As a consequence, Buddhism is one of the few religions which has never attempted to propagate itself and exterminate its enemies by war and tyranny. A fanatical Buddhist is, by definition, a deluded Buddhist.

A testable psychological technology.
Buddhism is not dependent for its existence on self-referential statements. Buddhism is sometimes described as a religion and sometimes as a philosophy. Both these terms are a partial description, but what is often overlooked is that as well as being a set of beliefs, Buddhism is also a technology. Buddhism is a set of tried and tested methods which are used to develop the mind by producing altered states of awareness. In effect it is a psycho-spiritual applied science.

A Buddhist teacher will teach her students meditational and other techniques which will generate definite mental states (known as realisations). The methods of mental development are designed to free the mind from the accumulated delusions of millennia, and lead to a state of peace and tranquillity. Buddha Shakyamuni intended his teachings to be personal advice for his students,  which is why Buddhists tend to refer to themselves as practitioners rather than believers - emphasising the practical intention of putting Buddha's teachings to work, instead of passively accepting them as revealed truth. Buddha always encouraged his students to gain understanding of his teachings by putting them to the test of personal experience, and not just relying on his authority. In fact the Buddhist idea of authority has much more in common with the idea of scientific authority than it does with ecclesiastical authority. Buddhist authority carries with it the idea of the possession of knowledge which can conveyed to others and confirmed by of reproducible experiences. In Buddhism there is none of the attitude 'Here are umpteen unsupported statements which you must believe unquestioningly'

Susan Blackmore (who has written extensively on memetics) has remarked that if a meditational system such as Buddhism is a meme, then it is actually a very peculiar one -  a meme-clearing meme. 

A novel view of meditation might be that it is like running a virus check on your mind.  Lurking memes, such as rubbish left over from childhood indoctrination, can be brought to the surface and examined. Residues of self-referential belief systems - those driven by fear, guilt, hate, wanting to conform, wanting other people to conform, or alternately pride in being better than non-believers - can be recognised for what they are and cleared out.


'Memes' at  The Religion of PeaceSubject Index

Viruses of the Mind
'...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...'

The Terrifying Brilliance of the Islamic Memeplex  - Scary!

No Golden Rule
"...According to Muslims it is not the Golden Rule that defines the good and bad, it is Muhammad who does it. They believe that what is good for Islam is the highest virtue and what is bad for Islam is the ultimate evil. This is the definition of good and evil in Islam. This is the ethos of all cults. From Asahara’s “Aum Shinrikyo” to Jim Jones’ “People’s Temple”; from Sun Myung Moon’s “Unification Chruch” to David Koresh’s “Davidian Branch”, the recurring theme is that the cult’s interests override the human understanding of right and wrong. In order to advance the interest of the cult, which is regarded as the ultimate good, everything, including lying, and even murder and assassination are permissible. The end is deemed to be so lofty that it justifies the means. This is the same idea of fascism where the glorification of the state and the total subordination of the individual to it are enforced..."  
- Explains a lot!

Censorship and Indoctrimemes  "How do you keep nearly a billion people quiet while everything they value about their countries and their civilization is torn apart, sold off and gradually destroyed?"


If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews


Dawkins, R. (1989) in  'The Selfish Gene'  p 197 - 198  (Oxford University Press,  ISBN 0-19-286092-5)

Dennett, D.C. (1995) in  'Darwin's Dangerous Idea'  p 515 - 517 (Penguin, ISBN 0-14-016734-X)