Daniel C. Dennett holds nothing back when he attacks the standard assumptions concerning origins of religion. He supposes that what we conceive as our belief system might be the result of a folk religion mutating into an organized religion. According to Dennett this has happened with the help of religious authorities, whom he calls “protective stewards.” He claims that they used memes in order to gain benefits.
The term meme was introduced by philosopher Richard Dawkins to describe the rituals and beliefs that parents pass to their children. These form the framework of eligible and validated ideologies in the brains of their infants. Dennett goes further than that and differentiates “domesticated meme” from the “parasite meme.” According to him the first one enhances the spiritual fitness of its host and its existence depends on the help from the “human guardians.” The second one deliberately deconstructs essential human values that have been established through reasoning and rationality. This group of memes gets protection from “stewards” because it’s advantageous for their marginal interests.
At this point in the discussion, it’s important to bring to the light one of the most convincing evidences that Dennett provides to explain the longevity of religion. He says the reason to it lies in the interest of gaining benefits. If we stay in the realm of Dennett’s chain of thoughts there are two possible beneficiaries of mentioned advantages: the “human guardians”, who are ordinary members of society and “protective stewards”, the same religious authorities. The first group relates to religion not because they understand the core ideas, but because they find comfort in times of financial, emotional or mental crises. The second group uses religion to manipulate their followers. For example they take advantage of the title of the “Father”. As Dawkins explains children’s brains have a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders are telling them. Therefore the usage of parental image, by religious authorities, shuts down the rational, more reasonable part of the human brain and makes it easier for the “stewards” to ingrain the desired beliefs. This gives them the authority of becoming the physical manifestation of God.
One of the ways Dennett advices we avoid such an unwanted influence is by investigating religion in the same way one would investigate anything else. Although religion is able to bring out the best in human beings, it can also go haywire, therefore believers need to protect themselves and others by being informed (11). One might say this proposition opposes religion, but, in fact, it helps to strengthen the beliefs that a person truly believes in and weakens the memes that instruct them towards primitive obedience.
Roger Trigg agrees with Dennett’s point of view about the dangers that blind commitment to religion might carry, but his main critique is not directed towards the beneficiaries of religion. He questions the social scientific attempts of analyzing religion. Trigg claims that the reason this approach won’t work is because it sees no need of assessing the rationality of belief itself. He finds this attitude both liberating and restricting: liberating because it creates favorable atmosphere for objectivity and restricting because it aims at nothing deeper than a mere description. If the main attraction of the research is simply assessing the “functioning” aspects of beliefs in society, rather than its nature, the deeper form of understanding and explanation becomes almost impossible.
The two main ideas that Trigg contemplates during the course of discussion are that religious beliefs lie within the bounds of rationality and say you believe in God is to say that God exists. Trigg, through his attempts to unveil the nature of religion shows an unprecedented amount of respect for human beings’ ability to reason concerning what’s true. He claims that one explanation for a belief may be that it is held because it is true. Trigg continues that if we believe the opposite – that the content of religion is nothing more than a projection of some feature of human condition – we can never discover anything new. In every context we would have merely inhabited a world of our own construction. He claims that social scientists, pretending to distance themselves from the object of their study by ignoring the possible rational bases of beliefs, don’t realize that they intentionally close their eyes to important parts of the evidence. No living inhabitant of the earth will ever achieve the full exclusion of himself or herself from the surrounding reality.
D.Z. Phillips offers an additional color to the exploration of the theme. He points out that religious beliefs have their meaning in practices and actions, not in referring to, or picturing particular objects. Philips claims “To say that God is in the picture is not to say that it is a picture of God.” (31) By this proposition he points out that human beings, the consumers of replicated religious memes and images, have become caught up in the process of multiplications and become the victims of the “parasite memes.” The diverse versions of what was supposed to be only one has confused our minds and muted our instincts. We have become numb to the voice of reason that’s telling us that no color, gender, age or any physical restriction could be attached to the source of what is called “limitlessness.”
Religions are now a source of division and dispute in many societies. We can conclude that “protective stewards” have been trying hard to crush human reasoning by ingraining “parasite belief systems” that are making us separate ourselves from one another, according to the version of deity we have received. This leads to the realization of the danger that, although, we are given an idea of God we might be actually missing God.
Peterson, Michael, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger, eds. Fifth ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.
“Richard Dawkins.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.