Religion and Memes III

Continued from yesterday.

Most (all?) religions (this should probably be its own post, but we’ll go through quickly and shallowly) offer four things to their followers:

  1.  Ritual
  2. Mythology
  3. Ontology
  4. Ethics

Just for clarity: for Christianity, as one example, ritual would include praying and taking communion, mythology would include the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, ontology would include the assertion that souls outlive the body and get judged and sorted, and ethics, depending on your denomination, range from loving your neighbor to hating “f-words.”

(Mythology does not imply falsehood here. A key element in Mormon mythology is the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, and you’d have to be a real tinfoil hatter to say that neverindex happened.)

You may assert (by meme or otherwise) that your mythology is more historically accurate than a religion’s, that your ontology is more rigorous or your rituals more efficient, and I’m not here to contradict you. You can point out to creationists that marsupial fossils should be littering the road from Ararat to Australia, and they aren’t. But we have seen that your ethics, whatever they are, rest upon no sounder foundation than any religion’s. And here’s where your memes get you in trouble.

I said before that in posting these memes you, hypothetical straw man reader, were making a category error. You were failing to recognize that the ethics of a religion may differ in specifics, but do not differ in type from your ethics. That is to say, the difference between the ethics of two atheists may be no greater or less than the difference in ethics between a theist and and an atheist. You probably agree with the morality of Mr. Rogers more than you do with the morality of Joseph Stalin.

The idea that all religions should live and let live and not bother nonbelievers makes as much sense as the idea that all ethics should apply only to the people who believe in them. “Charles Manson doesn’t believe murder is wrong, so who am I to force my beliefs on him?” said no one ever. It’s so absurd that it sounds like a straw man argument, but it is simply an application of the demand that others practice radical tolerance. Other people’s beliefs (as we all seem to want to assert) are silly little valueless things.xxrel3

Let me give an example. Religious activists, including but not limited to Quakers, were instrumental in ending the slave trade. Their arguments against slavery were religious arguments. Their conviction was a religious conviction. They did a lot of good! They also enforced their religious convictions on people who disagreed. They literally demanded that others follow their religious beliefs. But because we agree with them, we say they did the right thing.

The American abolitionist movement was overwhelmingly a religious movement. Religious people were willing to fight and die because they believed in the dignity of all relmeme2mankind. Let’s imagine a Union company made up of half religious abolitionists from Boston, half secular humanist abolitionists from my imagination. Both are willing to kill for their cause (if they aren’t, they’ll lose the war). Is one half of the company admirable and one half contemptible? Should one half kill themselves before battle, in order to satisfy the death order demanded by a meme?

We should always be careful lest we perpetrate halfway thinking. Halfway thinking is thinking really hard until we reach a comforting conclusion, and then immediately stopping. If you post a meme about religion, you should check to see if substituting “value system” in the text would mean the meme wants us to tolerate murder.

It’s easy to assume religion is a bunch of strange gestures (ritual) or unprovable claims (ontology) and forget that it is also a series of commands on how to live a good life. You may disagree with some or all of these commands, but it would be strange if you did not assert that you have your own commands for how to live a good life.

As I said before, I’m not trying to convert you to a religion; I’m not even necessarily trying to convert you to the belief that your beliefs are arbitrary nonsense. I want one thing from you and one thing only.

I want you to stop sharing stupid memes.


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