Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes - Building a Religion

For the September Phoenix meeting we attempted to build our own religions with a view to how this might be used in SF writing. This was a sequel to the popular Design a Planet session held some time earlier.  Since this promised to be a much more difficult job than designing a planet, I spent a bit of time compiling a few notes for the meeting on a meme based approach to religions. In response to no public demand whatsoever, these notes are given here for your delectation and amusement.


The intent of this exercise is to look at the underlying building blocks of a religion. The approach is to look at this from a meme oriented view. With a bit of luck, it may be of use for people writing about or reading about religions - or possibly even in the analysis of current religious or quasi religious institutions.

The plan is to look at the basic memes of religion then look at how these are present in a real religion - Catholicism, because everybody knows at least a bit about it. Then we will try to quickly build a new religion for humankind and for an alien species that I will describe. Maybe it will give some ideas for writing stories.


MEME: (pron. `meem') A contagious information pattern that replicates by symbiotically infecting human minds and altering their behaviour, causing them to propagate the pattern. (Term coined by Dawkins, by analogy with "gene".) Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes. An idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else. All transmitted knowledge is memetic. (Wheelis, quoted in Hofstadter.)

MEME-COMPLEX: A set of mutually-assisting memes which have co-evolved a symbiotic relationship. Religious and political dogmas, social movements, artistic styles, traditions and customs, chain letters, paradigms, languages, etc. are meme-complexes. Also called an m-plex, or scheme (Hofstadter). Types of co-memes commonly found in a scheme are called the: bait; hook; threat; and vaccime. A successful scheme commonly has certain attributes: wide cope (a paradigm that explains much); opportunity for the carriers to participate and contribute; conviction of its self-evident truth (carries Authority); offers order and a sense of place, helping to stave off the dread of meaninglessness. (Wheelis, quoted by Hofstadter.)

The Religion Memes

BAIT: The part of a meme-complex that promises to benefit the host (usually in return for replicating the complex). The bait usually justifies, but does not explicitly urge, the replication of a meme-complex. (Donald Going, quoted by Hofstadter.) Also called the reward co-meme. (In many religions, "Salvation" is the bait, or promised reward; "Spread the Word" is the hook. Other common bait co-memes are "Eternal Bliss", "Security", "Prosperity", "Freedom".)

HOOK : The part of a meme-complex that urges replication. The hook is often most effective when it is not an explicit statement, but a logical consequence of the meme's content. (Hofstadter)

INFECTION: 1. Successful encoding of a meme in the memory of a human being. A memetic infection can be either active or inactive. It is inactive if the host does not feel inclined to transmit the meme to other people. An active infection causes the host to want to infect others. Fanatically active hosts are often membots or memeoids. A person who is exposed to a meme

but who does not remember it (consciously or otherwise) is not infected. (A host can indeed be unconsciously infected, and even transmit a meme without conscious awareness of the fact. Many societal norms are transmitted this way.)

2. Some memeticists have used `infection' as a synonym for `belief' (i.e. only believers are infected, non-believers are not). However, this usage ignores the fact that people often transmit memes they do not "believe in." Songs, jokes, and fantasies are memes which do not rely on "belief" as an infection strategy.

THREAT: The part of a meme-complex that encourages adherence and discourages mis-replication. ("Damnation to Hell" is the threat co-meme in many religious schemes.)

VACCIME: (pron. vak-seem) Any meta-meme which confers resistance or immunity to one or more memes, allowing that person to be exposed without acquiring an active infection. Also called an `immuno-meme.' Common immune-conferring memes are "Faith", "Loyalty", "Scepticism", and "tolerance". (See: meme-allergy.) (GMG.)

Every scheme includes a vaccime to protect against rival memes. For instance:

  • Conservatism: automatically resist all new memes.
  • Orthodoxy: automatically reject all new memes.
  • Science: test new memes for theoretical consistency and(where applicable) empirical repeatability; continually re-assess old memes; accept schemes only conditionally, pending future re:-assessment.
  • Radicalism: embrace one new scheme, reject all others.
  • Nihilism: reject all schemes, new and old.
  • New Age: accept all aesthetically-appealing memes, new and old, regardless of empirical (or even internal) consistency; reject others. (Note that this one doesn't provide much protection.)
  • Japanese: adapt (parts of) new schemes to the old ones.

TRAPPINGS - this is not a meme. The trappings of a religion are the physical form that the religion has taken. This is the visible exterior of a religion and therefore what is most commonly written about - but not necessarily the most important.


As an example, we can consider Catholicism as most people have at least some idea of how it operates. Of course, it is a complex religion and can offer more than one example of most of these memes.

  • Bait is everlasting life in a place of bliss. Caters to fear of death as well as the crappy nature of most peoples lives.
  • The hook is sin and absolution. In practical terms, this is gives control of sex.
  • Infection is simply belief. Brought about by indoctrination from youth and the mechanism of conversion - "hearing the call".
  • Vaccime is "faith". "The Word of God" contains all that there is to know.
  • Threat is damnation in hell. Made effective in Catholicism by the inclusion of family responsibility.
  • The trappings are the churches, priests, popes etc that we know about.

A New Human Religion

The challenge is to quickly design a new religion for humanity. A few ideas from movements in society at the moment may give inspiration:

  • Long life through good health
  • The progression of humanity to be something better than we are now
  • Technology as saviour - nano-technology in particular
  • The rejection of "scientific orthodoxy" - only natural is best
  • The increasing role of computers - virtual worlds
  • Being fat & unhealthy is sinful
  • There are no gods but there is an "earth spirit" - Gaia

A Religion for the Sleeth

The Sleeth are an alien race. The plan is to design a religion for them. The following are a few points about them and their society.

  • In concept they are a kind of intelligent Anteater. The Anteater character out of Johnny Hartís BC© strip provides the inspiration. There is also a connection with Inferno by Niven and Pournelle.
  • They are insectivores who have evolved using their incredibly long prehensile tongue to gather food. They now use this tongue for all kinds of delicate manipulation. They also use it for communication, taste and smell.
  • They are quadripedal, but can sit back on their rear legs using their strong tail for balance. This frees up their fore-paws for holding - these have the dexterity of a Grizzly Bear, but delicacy can be achieved by using the tongue. Note that because of the position of the eyes they cannot see what they are working on while holding something in their paws.
  • Their planet is dry - desert like over most of its surface with much active volcanism.
  • The Sleeth have two strongly differentiated sexes. The female is much smaller but faster than the male. Males have brown fur, females have white.
  • Before they became civilised, they were primarily loners - only getting together to breed. This has changed somewhat since then, but they are still solitary by nature.
  • They now have a technology level equivalent to very early steam engine age - equivalent to the early stages of our industrial revolution.
  • There is another "intelligent" race on the planet with stone age technology. The Sleeth are killing them off by habitat destruction.

Further Reading