Memes all the way down

How religious memes are some of the oldest entities in human history

Their [the great apes’] behavior, complex as it is, seems unreflective, concrete, and situation-bound.

Mimetic Theory

Even their uses of signing and their social behavior are immediate, short-term responses to the environment.

Girard realized that human desire is not a linear process, as often thought, whereby a person autonomously desires an inherently desirable object (Meredith desires McDreamy). Rather, we desire according to the desire of the other (many women are attracted to McDreamy, suggesting to Meredith that he is irresistible). We rely on mediators or models to help us understand who and what to desire. The problem, however, is that imitative desire leads to conflicts because a model can quickly become a rival who competes with us for the same object.

Mimetic activity has the power to spread its ‘memes’ across the world, provided they are sufficiently powerful.

The rise of Christianity and Islamic Memes

Among religions, there are two major distinctions. Ones that spread, and ones that remain to be part of their own people. Judism and Shikism could be called no-spreading religions, while Christianity and Islam spread outside of their initial populations. Why is this? Let’s first examine how a virus works. If someone is not immune to a virus, and if that virus is particularly effective, it will overtake a host, even at the compromise of their own health, and compel that individual to spread the virus further. This spread comes in the form of sneezing, coughing, if airborne (such as a cold). And if spread by liquid, causing excessive release of bodily fluids (such as Ebola).

Why is this the case? It is a fundamental component of how reality operates. After the Big Bang, there was chaos. And this chaos lasted for a while, but over time, among these unstable systems, there formed more stable systems. These more stable systems survived longer, and built on top of them became systems of greater and greater stability, resulting in the formation of stars, planets, and entire systems and galaxies. Earth was the formation of an unstable system into a stable one, cooling and becoming solid, and rotating around the sun. Within this stability, another system formed. A self-replicating system. What started as stability among atoms progressed to stability of molecules, which progressed to stability of proteins, which resulted in a self-replication in the form of DNA. This DNA quickly outpaced other systems, and has now spread all over the planet, and is now even in space.

From this, we can see that self-replicated, stable systems out populate all others systems. And this is the very reason we exist, due to self-replicating cells billions of years ago. The same principle can be applied to religion. Unstable religions, such as some cults, flare up, but then wither and die. Most religions are dead religions, because they could not survive. Some religions are stable enough among their populations, but do not self-replicate beyond the memetic activity passed down to off spring, such as Judism. But others have developed a means of spreading, by compelling their ‘hosts’ to spread their influence all over the world. In Christianity, this was in the form of missionaries. Compelling their subjects to spread the religion further. While with Islam, this was done by the sword. Jihad is one of the five pillars of Islam for a reason. Without it, it likely would not have spread, in the same way Christianity would not have spread without compelling missionary service.

From this, one might think Christianity and Islam are viruses, that infect people who are not ‘vaccinated’ by another religion. While the spread might be symbol, the organization is anything but. The organization of Catholicism and Sharia Law is extremely complex. Even protestantism still has a much more decentralized form of organization. Viruses usually don’t self-organize. If they did, they wouldn’t be viruses, they would be organisms.

What we see with Christianity and Islam, then, is not a virus, but a set of very powerful memes. These memes have been far better at spreading than their counter parts. Christianity, for instance, offered those under the Roman Empire a simpler religion, with fewer gods that needed sacrifices, and a more ‘personal’ connection to the divine. A god who was on their side, rather than the many times emotionally unstable god of Judism, or the immature gods of paganism.

From this, we can see how religions like Christianity and Islam propagated themselves from small groups to religions can span all over the world, with billions of ‘nodes’ holding these ‘memes’ and continuing to spread them to other ‘nodes’, while the less popular Knostic (where spreading the faith was not needed for salvation) became lost to the ages.


  1. Violence and Religion.

2. Donald, Merlin. “Precis of Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition”

3. Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge: The Belnap Press of Harvard University, 2011.



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