Utilizing Wilberian Structural Analysis to Evaluate New Religions

Blackmore's memetic theory is indeed very powerful to understand human culture, especially new religions. However, its analysis is strictly horizontal, failing to take into consideration the progressive stages of human thought. Yes, memes explain how ideas infiltrate our minds and our society, but what is needed is an explanation of how certain memes resonate with particular environments, that is, particular stages of evolutionary thought, better than others. Instead of placing all religious memes into the same linear category, a more helpful method would be to differentiate the various types of memes as they correspond to different psycho-social-emotional levels of humans. Some religious memeplexes are clearly different, not just in content but in type. Certainly, most of us recognize the difference between a meditating Zen master and a Jim Jones' type leader. Thus, being able to adjudicate which stage a new religion fits offers a more accurate assessment of what they are all about.

Ken Wilber's work on the spectrum of consciousness adds this necessary ingredient. He argues that just as there has been an evolution to the human body over millions of years, including the brain, so too has human consciousness evolved. This evolution of human consciousness can also be viewed as the evolution of human ideas, which are intimately dependent upon the particular structure of psycho-social awareness that is in evidence. The world does not so much change as does our memetic interaction with it. Hence, memes are structurally aligned to a particular pathway of growth and Wilber suggests that paying attention to a structure of consciousness (via Piaget's stages of psychogenetic growth) will help us to better understand why certain memes are found appealing at different times and for different peoples.

A classic example of how memes relate to stages of consciousness would be buying Christmas presents for one's family. The gifts are, invariably, age dependent. A four years old child's awareness of the world and wants/needs are dramatically different than a teenager's. The same with buying books for students in grammar school, high school and college. Each book or present contains ideas, but each are suited to the particular age of the recipient. To neglect the hierarchy of consciousness is to neglect the very instrumental guideline to memetic reproduction. Therefore, Wilber suggests that only certain memes can be replicated due to the stage of consciousness that is presently engaged. Memes about sexual reproduction, for instance, will be much more popular with those who have undergone puberty than those who have not. The reason why is not due simply to memetic mimicry, but also because of hormones. One, then, cannot divorce genetics (and the growth of human consciousness) from memetics. They go hand in hand in some ways, only to depart significantly at other turns. Wilber's hierarchy of consciousness helps us to "ladder" memes according to human growth cycles (both individually and socially). Consequently, not only will we be better able to predict why certain ideas get passed along a culture, we will be better suited to understand why some ideas never take hold among certain nations or tribes.

The main stages of human consciousness that Wilber delineates are: pre-rational (typhonic, magic, mythic), rational, and transrational. With each stage corresponding memes would find their home. Memes which promote group thinking, a magical world view, blind acceptance, non-scientific approaches to the world and, correlated to that, a lack of critical thought fit in the first category; memes which allow for individuality, skepticism, a scientific world view, and perspectivism (being able to step into another's shoes, or meme, as it were) fit in the second level; and memes that incorporate the former but add also an even broader worldview, one that may coordinate and integrate different perspectives and may draw upon mysticism, are placed in the final category. Unfortunately, because prerational memes and transrational ones are both nonrational, sometimes the distinctions between them become blurred. In this case, transrational groups are wrongly categorized as "infantile," and magical/mythic ones as transcendent.


Wilber on the Pre-Trans Fallacy

(found in The Essential Ken Wilber, p. 88;

all quotes in this chapter are from this same source)

The essence of the pre/trans fallacy is itself simple: since both prerational states and transrational states are, in their own ways, nonrational, they appear similar or even identical to the untutored eye. And once pre and trans are confused, then one of two fallacies occurs:…all higher and transrational stages are reduced to lower and prerational states. Genuine mystical or contemplative experiences, for example, are seen as a regression or throwback to infantile states of narcissism, oceanic adualism, indissociation, and even primitive autism…One the other hand, if one is sympathetic with higher or mystical states, but one still confuses pre and trans, then one will elevate all prerational states to some sort of transrational glory (the infantile primary narcissism, for example, is seen as an unconscious slumbering in the mystico unio)…

Wilber further contends that these stages of human evolution are witnessed not only ontogenetically but also phylogenetically. In other words, there is a parallel between an individual's evolution (from preoperational, to operational, to formal operational) and the evolution of human cultures. We can, in a way, witness the classic evolutionary stages of thought that have taken millions of years to go through in one individual's life (assuming this individual reaches the formal operational level and, perhaps, beyond). The transrational stage of human consciousness, claims Wilber, is only tapped by a few and so still a rarity at this time.


Wilber on the Transrational Experience

(p. 10)

But what could an actual "transpersonal" experience really mean? It's is not nearly as mysterious as it sounds…The observer in you, the Witness in you, transcends the isolated person in you and opens instead--from within or from behind, as Emerson said--onto a vast expanse of awareness no longer obsessed with the individual bodymind, no longer respecter or abuser of persons, no longer fascinated by the passing joys and set-apart sorrows of the lonely self, but standing in silence as an opening or clearing through which light shines…

What does all of this say in regard to evaluating religion? Quite simply, it suggests that certain religious memes may appeal to certain brain states. Pre-rational groups, such as of tribal origin, would identify with particular memes and not others. God, or the gods, most likely would not be described abstractly but very concretely, perhaps in anthropomorphic terms. Magical thought would also be a significant element here. The way children (yet to develop their operational or formal-operational cognitive skills) see God and the world serves as an example of this state of consciousness. Similarly, religious memes which allow for a cause and effect view of the world, which involve a more abstract view of the Divine, and which promote scientific thinking would find their place in the minds of those at the rational level. And, continuing this line of argument, transrational memes would appeal to those who have mastered the former level and can now open their minds to an even deeper understanding of reality, whatever that be. Wilber argues that at this stage one can witness the interconnectedness of the world and of ideas, one can see the "larger" scheme of things, and if one has not yet attained Maslow's self-actualized state of consciousness one can envision and work towards it.

Wilber is not only saying that religious memes match our brain states but also that our religious ideas evolve as our brain states evolve. It makes sense, then, that at five I believed in Santa Claus but at ten I no longer did. At twelve I believe in Adam and Eve and creationism but at eighteen I was an evolutionist (ironically my Catholic religion also supported evolution, yet I was unaware of it until much later). At twenty I believed in an anthropomorphic God which transformed into a non-theistic version by twenty-five. And so on. Particular memes resonated with the particular brain state I was in. And the same is true, contends Wilber, for human cultures.

Now there is a big caveat here: it may sound like Wilber is "judging" religions. When he says a specific religion fits more in the prerational category is he not criticizing it? Certainly, there may be a problem here if his objective was to purport ontological truth, but Wilber is not. Rather, his aim is to recognize psychological patterns of human thought following the lead of Piaget, who argued that our concepts of God evolve with our cognitive states. One at the operational level will see God very differently that one at the former-operational level. Is one stage "better" than the other? Well, perhaps it is best to say that each stage serves as a foundation for the next and so plays an invaluable role in our cognitive development. We should not sneer at the prerational level since it is necessary to lead us to the rational level; likewise we should not ridicule the rational stage, since it is the transitional bridge to the transrational. The transrational level, in Wilber's mind, is the direction we all seem to be eventually heading toward. Some individuals and religious groups, serving as exemplary models, may have already accessed it. This stage may be a higher level of cognitive development but the adjective "better" is really not necessary.

Overall, we can see that religious memes come in different types and correspond with different stages of consciousness. Recognizing the interplay between memetics and genetics certainly helps scholars to better understand how to adjudicate new religions and may in the long run help us to predict which new religions, now in the competitive spiritual marketplace, will survive in the future. As expected, transrational memes springing up in a tribal culture may not replicate well, and mythic memes in a strongly scientific community may die out. Thus, matching the meme to the proper psycho-social-emotional stage of the potential buyers will help to ensure its survival and possible success.