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Religion, Memes and Circular Logic: How Religion Invades People’s Minds

A theme that often comes up in religious debates — often with fellow non believers of some stripe and practically never with traditionalists or mainstream believers — is the idea that religion isn’t really harmful. Furthermore, there is the idea that religion isn’t really what motivates people. In this view, religion does no wrong because the individual’s psychology and the economic circumstances of societies are the true causes behind many of the negative things attributed to religion. Religion is cast as a nebulous force mainly consisting of hope and comfort.

I’m here to say that that’s half-right. But it’s also a cop-out.

Humans, with our flaws and our cognitive biases, indeed existed before religion. And even today, many people will claim a religion and nonetheless act in a way mostly consistent with humanistic values. Religion was created by humans, therefore, all “religious problems” are indeed “human problems” on a more chunked-up level. And of course, sometimes people incorporate other motivations into their decisions and use religion to justify it. But that’s not the whole picture.

It may be simple to say, “It’s not religion that’s the problem; it’s just how people use it!” It’s easy to swallow and avoids stepping on people’s toes. But it ignores the complexities of human social and psychological dynamics that go into it and the real harm ideology can bring.

Humans are social animals, and the beliefs of our tribe matter. In recent years, the concept of a meme has come into the popular consciousness. Though it’s mainly associated with Courage Wolf and lolcats, the concept of a meme has much wider social implications. The idea of a meme is simple: It is a single idea that replicates through human brains, with slight mutations, spreading its information like a gene. Some memes call for action directly, and others take root in the mind, framing its experiences, thoughts and decisions.

Religion, being a social belief, is a meme. It is transferred from generation to generation, self-perpetuating, and a thing of its own.  It embeds itself deeply into people’s identities, their fears and their psychologies. It’s no longer people who create these ideas: They interact with the ideas, but by this time, the ideas have taken on a life of their own. They perpetuate themselves using the vehicle of the human brain. There’s something bigger than individuals to be criticized and interacted with; there’s something bigger than individuals at cause; there’s a larger pattern. It is therefore the pattern itself that needs to be looked at with a critical eye. To really change the ills in society, harmful memes need to do one of two things: go away, or evolve into less malicious versions.

Let me qualify what I’m about to say next: My experience deals with Christianity, specifically, fundamentalist Christianity in the US. To an extent, there is likely an application to other religions or similar belief systems, but despite what the New Agers’ll tell ya, all religions don’t teach the same thing. There are parallels, but they say different things, and impress them upon the individual in different ways. So, my specific criticisms may not apply to all religions.

Christianity and similar belief systems prey upon the fears of a person from a young age. If you’re a child of the Covenant — or born into a Christian family — then your parents are tasked with “training [you] up in the way [you] should go, [so that] when you are old, [you] will not depart from [Christianity].” (Proverbs 22:6) Combine this with the famous “He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes,” verse (Proverbs 13:24), and you very often have a recipe for abuse. This is not the ordinary type of abuse. This isn’t abuse played out by sadistic monsters or drunks with anger issues. This is abuse played out by people with a pained look in their eyes, whose every instinct tells them not to, but who believe they are ordered by God Almighty to manipulate and hurt their children. If you’re lacking evidence, take a look into parenting methods in the Quiverfull movement. Google “blanket training.” Visit the Love, Joy, Feminism blog on Patheos.

It takes a special sort of indoctrination to override a person’s instincts and better judgement like that. The ideology is drummed into people’s heads from birth and socially reinforced. Asking questions that seem too doubtful or skeptical is taboo, even for young children. Children recognize taboos. They take rebuke from an adult’s gasp and the slight look of fear in their eyes, and they know they’ve done something wrong, even if it’s not explicitly stated. Doubt is sin, and the wages of sin is Death.  Death, in this case, being Hell, eternal torment, literally the worst thing you can possibly imagine, forever, with no hope of escape.

The Faith is promoted as the only logical conclusion. It goes something like this: “Evolution is an unsupportable lie made up by atheists who want to do be able to sin without consequence. Therefore, the universe must come from somewhere and because something can’t come from nothing and there’s all this complexity it must be God. It’s our God, because the Bible is true. The Bible is true because it says it’s true and the prophecy of Jesus came true from the Old Testament. Also, the prophecy of Israel came true. Therefore, if you want to believe some of the Bible, you have to believe all of it because it says so. Also, you must take it literally because it was meant to be taken literally. Therefore, Creationism is true.”

With Christianity in particular, the actual doctrine breaks down the individual’s will, critical thinking and self-trust at every possible point. It’s a doctrine of gaslighting. You must trust in a higher source because you are inherently untrustworthy and inherently incapable of making your own decisions because you, Sons and Daughters of Eve, are inherently evil. Yep, from the time you’re born, you’re corrupted and need to be saved. The Devil will try to lead you astray at every point, so never trust that niggling whisper of doubt. I remember the creepy, lobotomized smiles of youth pastors and twelve-year-olds alike, joyfully proclaiming, “I’m the lowest scum of the Earth! I can’t do anything on my own! It’s only through Christ that I am saved!”

That is only one of the many examples of circular logic and psychology promoted by religion and cults. Diane Benscoter gives another example in her excellent TED Talk, How Cults Rewire The Brain: “Moon is one with God. God is going to fix all the problems in the world. All I have to do is humbly follow. Because God is going to stop war and hunger — all these things I wanted to do — all I have to do is humbly follow. Because after all, God is [working through] the messiah. He’s going to fix all this.” The believer holds the circular logic sacred. It guarantees the safety of their soul, the protection of their identity, and a place in the tribe. From the inside, nothing appears wrong with it. It appears internally consistent. It’s the solution to all the world’s problems, and an actual map for living.

You can see how this would turn into politics pretty quickly. The truth is, religion forms the foundation for many people’s lives. It’s the ideological spring from which all things must follow. In fact, it’s taught that that is the only right way to be. Basing your thoughts on anything but religion is folly, because your logic cannot be trusted. Remember: You’re inherently evil, and the Devil is whispering in your ear.

I’ve realized this is going to have to be an introduction to a longer series or at least broken into two parts. Expect the next entry on Politics, Religion and Motivated Reasoning. Any questions, challenges or disagreements are welcome in the comments!

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Aurora is an 18 year-old freelance writer with an odd desire to learn absolutely everything, a quest in which some standard for distinguishing fact and fiction proves to be helpful. She has a passion for pondering of all sorts, good coffee, generally unpopular vegetables, and heretical smirks. She wishes to use some or all of these inclinations to make the world a better place.

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