When I was in Iran a few years ago, I visited the holy city of Mashhad. It was hard not to notice the begging and weeping of the pilgrims seeking solutions to the seemingly insolvable problems of their lives and unassumingly asking for forgiveness and blessing from Agha Imam Reza. While I was there, I heard a melodramatic story about a weeping dog that, according to the folks telling the story, had sought refuge in the holy shrine a few days before. According to Shia narratives, Imam Reza had a reputation for coming to the rescue of animals in imminent danger (Imam-e-Zaamin) ever since he rescued a deer from being slaughtered by a hunter.
Intriguing tales like that are the building blocks of religion in general, Islam in particular, and the principal reason for its continuous attractiveness. Even though many of such tales are counterintuitive, they seem to be inspiring to true devotees who accept them by faith. I asked my highly religious cousin who was with me about the validity of that unbelievable story of the asylum-seeking dog. He told me that incidents like that happen occasionally in the holy shrine of Imam Reza. He also informed me that there is even a farm in Mashhad where the animals, that have sought sanctuary in the holy shrine and were saved by Imam Reza, are taken and cared for until they die.
Such stories of course are not unique to Muslims. People of various faiths are fascinated by these anecdotes because they are really mesmerizing and the believers accept them as genuine. They will spread swiftly around the globe, especially in this age of social media and the Internet. You may wonder how persuasive such stories are to ordinary people and how many books and poems are written about them. They are mystifying and often contain what believers think is a morality lesson, or they are just plainly sensational and are usually the topic of discussion at the dinner table for Muslim families. They hear them so frequently that they develop a kind of fondness to them and they may in fact be brainwashed by them and act upon them.
Researchers tell us that religion survives through cultural evolution which is the transmission of cultural elements such as ideas, stories, thoughts, practices, precedents, and rituals through repetition and communication. While biological evolution occurs genetically, cultural evolution happens through memes, a unit of cultural elements. Evolutionary psychologists believe that human beings are designed by natural selection to be enthralled by outlandish things. The mental credulity that results from this human bias goes back to the dawn of social living. Generation after generation of human beings have been accepting some ideas and beliefs and rejecting others. The ideas and beliefs that are persistently accepted certainly have some selective advantages while the ones rejected have none. Only the beliefs with more selective advantages will endure. So the obvious question is what kinds of memes have more selective advantages and, therefore, are favored by the human mind?
Without a doubt, religious memes are very popular and everlasting. People seem to have been fascinated by them throughout human history, and have been holding on to them and passing them down to next generation persistently. As a matter of fact, our mind is genetically prepared to accept religious memes because of their rich selective advantages. Social science scholars have offered plenty of explanations as to why religious memes are so popular, why people keep holding on to them, and what kind of selective advantages they confer.
To begin with, we are genetically predisposed to be awestruck by unusual narratives such as the image of Jesus on a concrete wall, or the image of the Virgin Mary on a tortilla. Not many days after Khomeini returned to Iran from France, a rumor circulated in Iran that many followers had seen his picture on the surface of the moon! Of course that story wasn’t true; however, it gathered momentum and travelled across the country at the speed of sound. Although our fascination with such tales seems to be short-lived, they leave a lasting mark on society, many of them become timeless. They last forever and will be passed on to the next generation through repetition wrapped in the cover of faith and sacredness. The sighting of the Imam Zaman in a place on the outskirts of the city of Qom, Iran called Jamkaran is an example of such stories. We know that this cannot be factual; however, the love affair with this story is insanely insatiable. Every Thursday night a huge crowd of pilgrims gathers at this place to pray and to drop into a shallow well at the site a written request to the hidden Imam asking for help, salvation, forgiveness, and guidance.
Religious memes are not economically consequential; you do not lose anything if they are wrong or ineffective. Pious people, for example, always pray regardless of whether it works or not. If prayer happens to work, the religious memes will be reinforced and perpetuated; if not, there are always convincing explanations for their failure. Most religious memes also withstand examination because they are like a one way street. Consider the story of heaven and hell. No one has actually returned to this world after his death to tell us whether there is, in fact, a heaven or a hell. Nonetheless, Mullahs speak of heaven and hell so confidently one would think they had died and returned to this world to tell us about their firsthand observations.
It seems that religious memes stimulate good-feelings; people feel relieved when they pray and vindicated when they repent. Some memes such as circumcision supposedly confer medical benefits. Circumcision is required by Islam and Judaism. Mullahs also say that praying five times a day not only helps Muslims to exercise physically but also helps them to become disciplined. Even if such rituals may have medical benefits, medical benefit is not the primary reason why they are recommended. Circumcision, for example, is required because it is a sign of belonging and demonstrates that a believer is in fact a member of the community of “chosen people.” Similarly, the medical benefits derived from physical exercise is not the reason why Muslims are required to pray five times a day.
Religious rituals confer distinctiveness. Muslims believe that Islam is the final religion and that its prophet was the last prophet who came to complete all previous religions. They believe we are the chosen people, brothers and sisters and members of the Islamic Uma (community), the only ones who are saved and go to heaven. Shia Muslims believe that they will ultimately dominate the world after the hidden imam returns to earth. Religious memes tend to preserve themselves because believers are required to engage only in intra-community relationships, same for Jewish people. For example, according to Islamic jurisprudence, Muslim women are not allowed to marry a non-Muslim man under any circumstances, and the marriage of a Muslim man to a non-Muslim woman is conditional. Consequently, not only are the religious memes transferred more easily to offspring when both parents belong to the same faith, they are also more easily maintained.
Religious memes are often exploited to create or to enforce religious identity, or to strengthen patriotism, in which case they are also protected by religious authorities. Under such circumstances, religious beliefs are hard to contest and impossible to repudiate because those who do so will face reprisal or even serious criminal charges. This is the situation under the Islamic government in Iran.
According to some evolutionary psychologists, human beings are genetically vulnerable to group pressure. When we started living together in very small groups, individual survival was dependent on group support for food, shelter, security, and companionship. This is still the case, especially in societies in which people have very close relationships with each other. The chance of survival is very low for those who are alienated or contest the prevailing norms. Consequently, human beings have developed a bias toward conformity, conformity to the popular cultural memes, especially those related to religion. Practices such as male Muslims growing beards, veiling, persons having a dark mark on the forehead as a sign of piety, or Sunni Muslims praying while keeping both hands on the chest are all indications that the human mind is indeed conformist. More importantly, individuals crave attention, so most of the beard growing, chest beating, Hijab wearing, mourning, and forehead cutting (kama zani) are typically for getting attention and bowing to the snobbish mentality of the crowd.
In summary, while genetic disposition is the kernel of faith, what individuals believe in is a function of culture. Cultural evolution occurs as a result of repetition and transmission of memes. Religion is the outward expression of faith. One way to understand the birth and the survival of religion is to draw a parallel between biological evolution and cultural evolution. Evolutionary psychologists believe that religion is the product of memes. Memes are the units of cultural ideas developed by the human mind that are transmitted through various means of communication from one generation to the next. Memes are the attributes of human beings only; no other creature is intelligent enough to be able to communicate, and hence transfer memes. While there is a limit to the proliferation of genes, there is no such limitation when it comes to the duplication and dissemination of memes. And while the genetic evolution is very slow, memes can emerge, change, and disseminate easily and quickly. Just as with genes, memes can be positive or negative. The same can be true of religion.
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