A Blackmorian View of How Cults Succeed


Susan Blackmore's memetic theory of cultural evolution is a simple one on the surface. Essentially, it goes like this: just as genes survive by differentially replicating themselves in a sea of competition (with the "stronger"--best adapted--ones surviving by being able to co-opt the environment and pass on able bodied replications), so too with human ideas. Ideas, or memes, survive by making copies of themselves in "host" environments (usually human brains). The problem is that there are fewer hosts than ideas. Indeed, there are innumerable ideas but limited hosts. Hence, the competition of the fittest. In this context where ideas cannot survive unless they find a host environment, we know there will be winners and losers. Winner ideas are not necessarily the "best" or the "truest" thoughts, but rather those that can survive and make replicated copies of themselves (which, in turn, generate more duplications).

Not everything, such as perceptual experience or classical and operant conditioned responses, is a meme but only those ideas that can be passed on by imitation. Besides concepts, examples include clothing fashions and catchy phrases. For instance, when I was a kid a common saying was "go for it," sometimes abbreviated G.F.I. Why this phrase was so popular is fairly easy to explain by memetics: children tend to imitate behavior in order to better fit in with their social group. Using phrases such as "go for it", "that's cool," "right on," etc., are verbal ways of expressing consolidation with one's peers. The verbal meme I take responsibility for, at least in my family and among my friends, was the phrase "nectar." The nectar surf, the nectar meal, the nectar house, the nectar guy. My sister and best friend starting saying it as much I used to. While I have outgrown it by now new meme phrases have crept in to take its place. I think I will spare you these. Fashions offer an interesting example of memes. We see Fall fashions in Norstrom's magazine and we tend to imitate them. One year it is long skirts and the next short. As a child, I wore flaring bell bottoms ("Dittos" were the cool thing); then as a teenager following the latest trend I wore skin tight pants (sometimes having to use pliers to get the zipper up); and now I think the flare is in again (or am I a year behind?). Trendy ideas change and behavior follows suit. Among surfers, I remember when short board surfing was the big rush, but today long board surfing has regained popularity.


Blackmore on Memes as Imitation

(found in Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine, p. 4;

all quotes in this chapter come from this same source)

When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This "something" can then be passed on again, and again, and so take on a life of its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behavior, a piece of information…but if we are going to study it we shall need to give it a name. Fortunately, there is a name. It is a "meme."


Since memes require imitations, they must be passed on (or replicated) to survive. To be sure, there may be many things that we might imitate in isolation, but in order for a meme to be successful it must be able to be imitated and distributed among a larger group of people. In a way, memes are akin to contagious viruses waiting to infect unsuspecting hosts. Have you ever noticed how you cannot stop your mind from thinking about certain thoughts? We are forever bombarded with words, thoughts, ideas, and phrases, even if we wish not to dwell on them. Successful memes must be self-replicating; they seem to shout, as Blackmore points out, "Copy me!"


Blackmore on Meme Replication

(p. 40)

If a meme can get itself successfully copied it will. One way to do so is to command the resources of someone's brain and make them keep on rehearsing it, so giving the meme a competitive edge over memes that so not get rehearsed. Memes like this are not only more likely to be remembered but also to be 'on your mind' when you next speak to someone else. If we take stories as an example, a story that has great emotional impact, or for any other reason has the effect that you just cannot stop thinking about it, will go round and round in your head. This will consolidate the memory for that story and will also mean that, since you are thinking about it a lot, you are more likely to pass it on to someone else, who may be similarly affected.

Blackmore's theory, borrowed from Richard Dawkins who first articulated it in his book THE SELFISH GENE, posits a radical view of human culture. Ideas are living us, not vice versa. Indeed, the very "I", the heart of consciousness, the personality, is itself the result of memetic warfare. Whoever we are is the outcome of which memes successfully reproduced. We are not a single entity, but rather a memeplex (a network of connected, and sometimes disconnected, idea units). Thus, the concept of a self vanishes, rather we are walking "meme machines," the title of Blackmore's latest book.

Memetic theory implies that there are certain rules that we should be able to discover which govern idea replication. The most obvious and simple one is that a "popular" meme will not consistently be in radical opposition to the reproduction of genes (although it is important to note that certain popular memes, like the phrase "legitimate," are of neutral genetic value). For example, the idea of celibacy may be a helpful one for certain individuals but by its' very intent cannot (unless systematically violated) be a popular one amongst the majority of humans. Why it cannot is perhaps too apparent to spell out. If celibacy were strictly adopted by a large segment of the population, it would mean the very extinction of those people and the very death of the idea of "celibacy." If everyone practices celibacy, there will eventually not only be no people, but no ideas pertaining to sexual abstention. The logic at first seems so simple as to be ridiculous, but on closer inspection it is an extremely powerful tool in order to understand what underlying rules shape memetic evolution.

Quite clearly, ideas that tap into the emotions have a better chance of spreading, even if they are totally bogus. Take chain letters as illustrative case in point. What makes chain letters "move"? Or, more accurately, what prompts us to pass on a letter to another person, even when we know that its contents may be erroneous? A number of factors, but two are primary: desire and fear (or, as Freud would have it, Eros and Thanatos). Desire is in the form of "hey, if you send this letter along you will receive lots of money in the mail." Fear is in the form of "hey, if you don't send this letter along you will get in a car accident." In both cases, the chain letter (the "memeplex") is appealing to innate human needs and fears. By playing off those, the letter raises the probability of its survival, even though its contents, like we said, may be completely fraudulent. Hence, a chain letter is an information virus of sorts, attempting at each turn to infect its host by penetrating its most vulnerable ports of entry. Certainly, there could other types of chain letters that don't at all appeal to our baser instincts. But the real question is whether or not they would successfully replicate. For instance, I can imagine a chain letter that says, "please pass me along because I ask you to." This form of a memeplex is perhaps more honest than its cousin ("pass me along or I will kill you"), but I don't think it has the same advantages and will most likely be circulated amongst a limited number. Overall, all of this suggests that content is secondary to transmission. How a message is spread is more important that what the message says.

Another major factor contributing to the success of a meme is its simplicity. The more complicated the meme the less popular it probably will be. We need look no further than to advertising to see the truth of this statement. Popular ads and commercials are usually ones with cute, catchy slogans and not long, drawn out ones. Keep the ideas very simple and you may have a winner. Remember the "Da Da Da" commercial. That meme song was with me for days. As all avid television watchers know, some commercials are more popular than others which is another way of saying some messages get passed along better than others. Simple (and catchy) messages definitely have a better survival rate.


Blackmore on Meme Advertising

(p. 55)

Memes are replicators and if they can get themselves copied they will. The imitating machinery of the brain is an excellent environment for copying tunes. So if a tune is memorable enough to get lodged in your brain and then passed on again then it will--and if it is really memorable, or singable, or playable, it will get into a lot of brains. If it turns out to be just what some TV producer needs to start her latest soap opera then it will get into even more brains, and every time you start humming it here is a chance that someone will hear you and you will set them off. Meanwhile plenty of other tunes are never heard again. The consequence of all of this is that the successful ones increase in the meme pool at the expense of others. We all get infected with them…

If we apply the deconstructive theories of Nietzsche with the memetic theories of Blackmore we may begin to understand how new religions arise and what accounts for their survival and success. The transmission of an idea depends on the availability of subject hosts, and thus cultural breakdown or traditional breakdown will be open season for the emergence of new memetic/religious replacement. We can see this in the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and in the cultural changes in the United States in the 1960s. Nietzsche's idea of cultural disintegration in light of God's death (God here stands for any ultimate value within in any given culture) points to the need for the general masses to look to new gods, new icons, new ideas, and new religions to fulfill the void, unless of course they turn directly to nihilism, a position that Nietzsche felt was ultimately untenable. What God's death portends is really the death of any universally applicable value that the majority of participants believe in. Such a state can either lead to utter anarchy and chaos or it can lead to the selection of new gods and new icons. In the case of religion it often leads to competition of new and varied religions. Here is where Blackmore's memetic theory comes into play since it helps explain both how and why some religions become more popular than others. Competition among new religions indicates that there will be ones that are more successful than others and so we should also be able to make some scientific predictions about which ones will prosper utilizing memetic theory. Memetic factors determining popularity appear to revolve around three fundamental principles: 1) value-related incentives; 2) memetic simplicity; and 3) memetic distribution. Specifically, we have found out that more successful religions tend to have ideas which incite both desire and fear (usually couched in ultimate terms like heaven and hell); simplified core messages which can be transmitted to large audiences without complexity and attendant difficulties; and messages that encourages the membership to spread the teachings.

Thus, we can easily see that the popularity of a religion has absolutely nothing to do with its truth-value or its aesthetic strengths. Rather, the popularity of a religion is due to how well its ideas can propagate amongst human hosts. Some ideas, even though true, just don't replicate well and will, due to that deficiency, die out. Therefore, the real reason some religions garner millions of followers while others die out is due to factors that having nothing to do with God or truth. In a Darwinian fashion, therefore, the survival of the fittest doesn't translate as "biggest" or "strongest" or "most honest" or "truest." It translates as this: whatever ideas can survive a given environment and successfully make copies that, in turn, can do the same will win out. Those ideas that cannot pass this test (and keep in mind that this test says nothing about truth) will by the very nature of the game fail and die out. So like genes, memes are "selfish" in the sense of looking out for their own reproductive survival. Religions, new or old, are the direct result of this memetic competition. Some religions are better suited to propagate through large populations than others, even though these religions themselves may have nothing to do with higher or eternal truths (though, undoubtedly, they may use the disguise of such claims to pass itself through the culture).


Blackmore on the "Truth Trickery" of Religious Memes

(p. 189)

The truth trickery is liberally used. In many religions, God and Truth are virtually synonymous. Rejecting the faith means turning away from Truth; converting others means giving them the gift of the true faith. This may seem odd when so many religious claims are clearly false, but there are many reasons why it works. For example, people who have a profound experience in a religious context are inclined to take on the memes of that religion; people who like and admire someone may believe their truth claims without question…

If this is the case (and Blackmore's theory is indeed persuasive), it suggests that religions are more akin to chain letters than we might at first suspect. The core features a religion must have in order to achieve successful memetic duplication or adherence is almost the same as those that allow chain letters to survive: desire and fear. In religion, however, desire can be dressed up in some fancy garb like "heaven," "nirvana," "sach khand," "happy hunting grounds." The reason astrology has survived for countless centuries has nothing to do with its truth value (very low, if any), but with its ability to give meaning and hope to individuals who are in need of finding some point or purpose to their day to day lives. Fear, likewise, can take on a much more scary face like, "hell," damnation," "wheel of samsara," "hades," and so on. Couple desire and fear with a meme that says it is your duty to "spread" the message vigorously and you have a potential "winning" religion. In this spiritual lottery, one that is governed by how many tickets can get circulated, popular religions must appeal to fundamental human needs in order to succeed. But, more importantly, those appeals don't have to be necessarily true, provided that they "appear" viable. And, given the plasticity of the human imagination, almost anything can "appear" viable, even if it is the opposite. But the key point in all of this is propagation and successful duplication.


Blackmore of Fear and Desire in Religion

(p. 188)

The Catholic God is watching at all times and will punish people who disobey His commandments with most terrible punishments--burning forever in hell, for example. These threats cannot easily be tested because God and hell are invisible, and the fear is inculcated from early childhood...Having raised the fear, Catholicism reduces it again. If you turn to Christ you will be forgiven…God's love is always available but at a price, and that price is often overlooked completely because it is paid so willingly. It is the price of investing massive amounts of time, energy and money in your religion--in other words working for the memes…


This same analysis applies for new religions. New memes that dovetail with basic human needs/desires and fears (value-related incentives) will be more successful than those that do not. The New Age Movement is a classic example of a new religious movement that cultivates these human emotions. The New Age to come is described in paradise terms (eros, pleasure, desire), but those who do not jump on the bandwagon preparing for its entrance will not witness it, suffering instead a tragic end (thanatos, death, fear). The tactic of inciting fear is what I call an "immune meme," or "idea quarantine," or "meme inoculation." Religious ideas that draw upon fear, such as the Devil will get you or in some eastern traditions Kal will get you, safeguard the conversion to their own family oriented memes. By utilizing a pre-existing counter programming, the virus, as it were, will not let you out of its grip.

Blackmore on Using Memetic Tricks to Spread New Religious Memes

(p. 193)

No one designed these great faiths with all their clever tricks. Rather, they evolved gradually by memetic selection. But now days people deliberately use memetic tricks to spread religions and make money. Their techniques of memetic engineering are derived from long experience and research, and are similar to those used in propaganda and marketing; with radio, television and the Internet, their memes can spread far further and faster than ever before. Billy Graham's style of tele-evangelism is a good example. He starts out by evoking fear, reminding people of all the terrible things happening in the world and their own impotence and mortality. He presents science as having no answers ands as a cause of the world's ills, and then persuades people to surrender to the all-powerful God who is their only hope of salvation. The experience of surrender raises powerful emotions and people turn to God in huge numbers.


As with all successful memes, religious ideas must be relatively simple to be easily spread. Certain religions will never be very popular because they either tend to be too complicated to transmit (without losing the very complexity they wish to retain) or because they generate safeguards against duplication. Judaism has been around much longer than either Christianity or Islam, but it remains a relatively small world religion, with numbers ranging from 14 to 20 million (depending upon your census). Why so small, especially when its core text (the Torah) has millions of copies in circulation? A number of possible answers present themselves, but clearly the intricate laws governing Jewish behavior (including circumcision) is one of them. But even more important than that, was we shall see when discussing memetic distribution, is the general resistance of Jews to "preach" their religion to others. Compare a Jewish rabbi for instance with a Mormon missionary. How many times has someone of the Jewish faith knocked on your door inviting you to the local temple? But how many times has a Mormon, or for that matter a Jehovah Witness, made personal inquiries of you and your faith?

While Blackmore's theory suggests that a popular religion must be relatively simple at its core (at least in the sense of being accepted or rejected by potential recruits), this doesn't mean that the most popular religions in the world are the stupidest. Her point, rather, is that the essential core doctrine must be simplified to a degree that its essence can be transmitted with the least difficulty. (The downside, of course, to an extremely simple memeplex is that its very easiness may not ensure long term commitments. The more complicated a conversion procedure--the more time and effort it takes--the more likely the neophyte will stay within the group and display adherence. Some religions have small followings but quite devoted members.) Thus, even though Catholicism may have a fairly complex theology (one need only think of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica), its essential message necessary for conversion must be kept at a bare minimum. The Apostle's Creed offers a simple memeplex. Otherwise, with too complex theology potential recruits would be warded off. Now on some level this has already happened, since Catholicism is a much more complicated memeplex than fundamentalist Biblical Christianity. (Remember that many Catholics today are not converts but recipients of a birth heritage.) To formally convert to Catholicism you need a priest sanctified by the Church to perform Baptism. Later one must receive the various sacraments. However, in some streamlined fundamentalist Christian sects the process of conversion is extraordinarily simple, usually codified in a phrase such as, "I accept Jesus Christ as my Personal Lord and Savior and that he died for my sins and resurrected on the 3rd day.... etc, etc." Say the statement sincerely and repent for one's sins and you are "born again" in the Christian community. You also receive the grace of Jesus and eternal life. Very simple compared with Catholicism and perhaps the reason why conservative Christianity is on the rise. In Islam there is a similar scenario. One needs only to declare the Islamic creed ("There is one God and Muhammad is His Prophet") with deep sincerity and conversion has transpired. This helps explain why Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, expected to significantly surpass Catholicism. Besides promoting simple religious memes (creeds) for conversion, both Christianity and Islam have classic Eros and Thanatos components (eternal heaven and eternal hell); each encourage conversions (passively and, at times, forcibly); and each stress increasing family size (this ranges from Christianity's prohibitions against artificial birth control to Islam's allowance of four wives to males if they can support each of them).


Blackmore on the Success of Religion Memeplexes

(p. 192)

When we look at religions from a meme's eye view we can understand why they have been so successful. These religious memes did not set out with the intention to succeed. They were just behaviors, ideas and stories that were copied from one person to another in the long history of human attempts to understand the world. They were successful because they happened to come together into mutually supportive gangs that included all the right tricks to keep them safely stored in millions of brains, books, and buildings, and repeatedly passed on to more. They evoked strong emotions and strange experiences. They provided myths to answer real questions and the myths were protected by untestibility, threats and promises. They created and then reduced fear to create compliance, and they used the beauty, truth, and altruism tricks to help their spread. That is why they are still with us, and why millions of people's behavior is routinely controlled by ideas that are either false or completely untestable.

The third most popular world religion, Hinduism, differs greatly from both Christianity and Islam and has several factors that would appear to contravene memetic theory. First, Hinduism is not a simple memeplex in terms of practice or theology. However, it overcomes that by allowing almost all expressions of religion to be honored. In this way, Hinduism's strength is its acceptance of innumerable gods, gurus, and paths. Thus, Hinduism uses complexity to arrive at a very simple meme: God can be approached by almost any means, provided the devotee is sincere. The number and names of gods will be lost in the translation (and one should not suspect that Hindus will know them all), but not the essential message: God is One, but the paths are Many. By allowing variance as part of their religious landscape, Hinduism minimizes conflict, contradiction, and differences under the rubric that God can manifest in any form he or she desires. Hinduism grows not by its opposition, but by its amazing tolerance.

The world's religions that have not garnered large followings are usually due to several factors, not the least are intrinsic pressures within the group that don't allow for either easier conversions or simplified memetic understandings. This ranges from Judaism's complex dietary laws to orthodox Sikh's Khalsa restrictions to Jainist's extremist moral positions. Each of these religions, though relatively successful, will most likely never emerge as large world religions unless they modify their core qualifications.

As for new religions, we can predict that those with simpler ideas, easy to remember, will take hold faster and easier than complicated ones, since meme infection more readily occurs if the potential convert is explained the group's ideas in a clear and compacted way. With this in mind, several new religions utilize catchy phrases, publicly chant mantras or sing religious songs to help this infection along. (While religions do not tend to think of themselves as commercials, in a real memetic sense that is exactly what they are.) And when speaking of simplicity, of course, the name of the guru/teacher should also be simple, for it is very hard remembering a name that goes on for fifteen sentences.

Moreover, memetic distribution is essential for a meme's popularity. That is, a religion must be willing to spread its message, to transmit its core ideas. Religions are somewhat unique here: while all memes naturally have a tendency to copy, in the case of religion, especially new ones, it usually overtly encourages (by reward or spiritual bonus points) its transmission via conversion/missionary work. It reminds me of how Amway works: go to public settings to entice new recruits to sell the products and the more disciples you pull in the more you will profit. Most new religions (and many more established religions as well) promote this activity to some degree (although certainly some much more than others). An extreme case of a new religion most of us have probably witnessed doing this are the Hare Krishnas who flood airports and busy cities passing out literature. In Laguna Beach, my hometown, they fill the streets on weekends, usually Sundays, spreading their message of Krishna. Going door to door is a method some new religions have utilized as well, though it is a much slower means to spread the meme than is available. A more powerful way to reach a larger audience is through mass media outlets. New religions advertise now on the radio, on the television and, with an even greater result due to a worldwide audience, on the internet. Utilizing as many languages as possible here, especially in the literature, certainly contributes to greater memetic distribution.

Along this line, it is also important to mention the promotion of religious memes into new cultural environments. To the degree that a religion can introduce novel memes into a culture it is more likely to be successful, provided that such memeplexes fulfill an already pre-existing need in the society (tapping into the market) or, more interestingly, "create" or "invent" such a desire among the population. A classic example of this would be the meditation group started by Ching Hai, a Taiwanese woman who was a one-time follower of Thakar Singh. Although shabd yoga thought had become popular in India and in many Western nations (primarily due to books and world tours made by the respective gurus and the increasing desire for Eastern thought--due to travel openings and improved worldwide communications), it had relatively few successes in China. Why? The answer is amazingly simple. There are practically no Radhasoami or shabd yoga texts in Chinese or Taiwanese. Thus, the very idea of the meditation practice was unheard of amongst a huge population. Enter Ching Hai who not only speaks Taiwanese but widely publishes her work on shabd yoga in Chinese. The result is not surprising: thousands of Chinese speaking people are attracted to her as their guru.

Furthermore, worth noting are those new religions that piggyback on the already-existing memeplexes in order to infect their host more easily. For instance, many Eastern religions in America, being new to this culture, make parallels to Christianity and even incorporate its theology into the meme of the new religion. While novel is sometimes exciting, too foreign can be a turn off. Hence, bring in some familiarity into the equation, that is dovetail with pre-existing memeplexes, and the probability is greater success. Self Realization Fellowship, started by a Hindu yogi named Yogananda in the 1920s, serves as a prime example as it display pictures of Jesus in the religious centers. No doubt many adherents are won over to its somewhat eclectic and ecumenical message.


Blackmore on the Truth and Falsity of Religion

(p. 194)

I do not mean to imply, from all that I have said, that there are no true ideas anywhere in religion. The memetic mechanisms I have described would allow religions to flourish that were based on complete falsehoods and nothing else, but there may be true ideas embedded in them as well. Just as some alternative therapies thrive by including a few treatments that work, so religions may include valid insights as well as misleading myths.

In the concluding chapter, Ken Wilber's analysis of religion explains how both cultural disintegration and memetic competition are structurally related to the evolution of human consciousness. Hence, genes, memes and culture are in a constant interplay and each of them cannot be understood in totality via isolation.