Non-representational and highly decorative Arabic text from the Alhambra Palace: Granada, Spain

Non-representational and highly decorative Arabic text from the Alhambra Palace: Granada, Spain


Introduction to the Variety of Religious Experience should be tackled first. The intention of this persistent meme unit is to broaden the scope of discussion on religions, and religious observances, by introducing human science and biological perspectives.

Begin by showing, in rapid succession, all four Sixty Second Adventures in Religion videos from the Open University.  It might be worth viewing each one twice.The first time, for serious TOK content; and the second time for appreciating the cascade of visual references and hilarious one-liners!


Prepare in advance five strips of paper with one of the questions below written on each one. Divide the class into five groups. Tell the groups to appoint a reliable scribe who will record highlights of (and direct quotations from) the lively to-and-fro of group conversation.

The groups will not see the other questions until each group comes forward, in turn, to make a succinct, impromptu oral presentation to share some of the interesting ideas that emerged. The scribe, of course, may participate in the oral presentation.

1. Is religion the opium of the people?

2. Are communism and fascism quasi-religions?

3. Is fanatical devotion to a sports team similar to religious observance?

4. What is secularism? Provide some real life examples of secularism in action.

5. Are religion and science incompatible Knowledge Systems?

Kantaji Temple, Dinajpur, Bangladesh.  Photo: Shahnoor Habib Munmun

Kantaji Temple, Dinajpur, Bangladesh. Photo: Shahnoor Habib Munmun


Atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the idea of "memes" in The Selfish Gene; the 1976 book that made him a celebrity. Here is his provocative encapsulation the God meme:

Consider the idea of God.  We do not know how it arose in the meme pool.  Probably it originated many times by independent `mutation'.  In any case, it is very old indeed.  How does it replicate itself ?  By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art.  Why does it have such high survival value ?  Remember that `survival value' here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool.  The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment ?  The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal.  

It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence.  It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next.  The `everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary.  These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains.  God exists if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture. 

Dawkins, Richard (1989) The Selfish Gene. [First published 1976] Oxford University Press.



  • Why is the transmission of cultural memes so much faster than biological evolution based on genes made of DNA?


  • Do we have an innate predisposition for religion rather like our propensity for language? Could religious belief be somehow encoded in our genes?

  • How might powerful survival tendencies like ascribing agency (cause and effect) and personifying the things we observe play into the origin of religion?

  • How might intellectual traits like our tendency to simplify, idealize and explore concepts like infinity play into the origins of religion?


Hubble photo of Galaxy NGC 3949

Hubble photo of Galaxy NGC 3949


  • The “scientific” questions above represent provocative and fascinating lines of inquiry; but they are essentially “How” questions. Are we missing the point entirely if religion is fundamentally concerned with very big “Why” questions?

  • If we can show convincingly that there is a biological basis for religion—think carefully—does that change anything?

  • If we take a strictly scientific stance are the ultimate “Why” questions meaningless? Is the only remaining option silence?

Printable pdf, of the Dawkins meme quote and all questions on this page.

Michelangelo (1509-12)  Creation of Adam  (detail). Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Rome.

Michelangelo (1509-12) Creation of Adam (detail). Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Rome.