Judaism as Memetic Model

Judaism is a useful ethno-religion for modeling mitochondrial/viral meme interactions because it is relatively small.

Depending on which study you read, the US has between 4 and 6 million Jews, neatly split into four main groups:

"Jewish Denominational Affiliation" graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.
Jewish Denominational Affiliation” graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.

A bit confusingly, Orthodox are the most conservative and Conservatives are more moderate. Reforms are liberal, and “No denomination” is mostly atheists who are, of course, the most liberal.

Orthodox have a TFR (total fertility rate, or children per woman,) of 4.1.

Conservatives have a TFR of 1.8.

Reform have a TFR of 1.7.

Atheist Jews have a TFR of 1.5. (source)

(Here I have to stop and point out an error in the source, which claims that “TFR”=total number of children per adult, when TFR is defined as childen per woman. The US TFR of 2.2 means the average woman has 2.2 kids, not that the average woman has 4.4 kids.)

Back to our data. We can see immediately that only Orthodox Jews have a TFR above replacement (approximately 2.) Let’s run through the numbers, just for fun (using a compromise starting number of 5 million total Jews):

Generation 1: 500,000 Orthodox Jews; 900,000 Conservative Jews; 1.75 million Reform Jews; and 1.5 million atheist Jews.

Generation 2: 1,010,000 Orthodox; 810,000 Conservative; 1.488 million Reform; and 1.125 million atheist Jews.

If this trend continued, by Generation 5 we’d have: 8.8 million Orthodox; 530,000 Conservative; 776,000 Reform; and 356,000 atheist. From 10% Orthodox to 84% in just a century; from 30% to 3% atheist.

In reality, though, this doesn’t happen, because many of the children of Orthodox Jews don’t stay Orthodox: “Fewer than half of Jews raised in Orthodox homes have remained Orthodox, with more than 20 percent leaving the religion altogether.”

But this finding requires a caveat, the authors are quick to add: those who left Orthodoxy in droves came of age in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The 1980s and 1990s have been a lot kinder to the Orthodox denomination; fully 83 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox.

!! If that doesn’t look like the less-devout boiling off, leaving a more genetically-inclined-to-Orthodoxy core, I don’t know what does.

Among Jews who were raised Conservative, the number who have left Jewish observance rises to 30 percent; among Jews raised Reform, 35 percent.

Notice that no one talks about Reform Jews becoming Orthodox, because very few do. Orthodox Jews may know how to have children, but their beliefs are simply unattractive to anyone who isn’t raised Orthodox. By contrast, Reform Jews can’t replenish themselves, but their ideas are attractive to non-Reform Jews.

In other words, Orthodoxy is mitochondrial; Reform and atheist Judaism are viral.

Here’s a graph for you:

Denominational switching among Jewish Americans, courtesy of the Pew Research Center
Denominational switching among Jewish Americans, courtesy of the Pew Research Center

I love a good graph.

Okay. So let’s recalculate Generation 2:

1,010,000 Orthodox => 48% O, 15%C, 11% R, and 26% A (as a practical matter, “no denomination” is pretty darn close to atheist,) or 485,000 O; 152,ooo C; 111,000 R; and 263,000 A +

810,000 Conservative => 4% O, 36% C, 30% R, 30% A, or 32,000 O; 292,000 C; 243,000 R; 243,000 A.

1.488 million Reform => 1% O, 6% C, 55% R, 37% A, or 15,000 O; 89,000 C; 818,000 R; 551,000 A.

and 1.125 million atheist Jews => mostly atheists.

For a total of 532,000 O; 533,000 C; 1,172,000 R; 2,182,000 A.  In case you’ve forgotten, Gen 1 had:

500,000 O; 900,000 C; 1,750,000 R; and 1,500,000 A.

The numbers aren’t extreme (which makes sense, since the average TFR is close to 2,) but notably, even though 52% of Orthodox children elected to go be something else, Orthodox is the only Jewish denomination that actually managed to grow. Conservative and Reform numbers, despite influxes from Orthodox Judaism, (and, for Reform, from Conservatives,) fell. Atheist Jews, of course, had a significant rise.

Carry on this pattern for several generations, and you get a Judaism that is increasingly split between Orthodox on one hand and atheism on the other.

Now suppose that the more recently observed trend of younger people staying Orthodox at higher rates than previous generations holds true, and the future looks even grimmer for the Conservatives. I’m not going to work out the math, because you can probably estimate for yourself what an 83% retention rate combined with a 4.1 TFR looks like–a very Orthodox Judaism. And very atheist.

I suspect that Christianity (at least white, American Christianity; Ugandan Christianity is totally beyond my knowledge zone,)  is following a similar pattern, with a large increase in atheists on the one hand, massive losses from the moderate center, and the most conservative elements almost hanging on:

I wanted a graph that went back further in time, but this is what I found.
Courtesy of Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape

I suspect that the “unaffiliateds” include both atheists and people who believe in god or spirituality in some sort of vague way, but not enough to actually attend a real church.

These drops are just over the past 7 years; looking further back, in 1948, nearly 70% of Christians described themselves as “Protestants” (including both mainline and Evangelicals;) today, that’s dropped to 38%. (I think Black Protestant churches and the Mormons are doing fine, however.)

I don’t want to get into the details of the changing Christian landscape, because that’s way too much to cover in the tail end of a post, but the pattern looks very similar, especially the precipitous drop in the Catholics and Mainline Protestants (the Christian moderates and liberals.) Evangelical Protestants don’t have the birth rates of Orthodox Jews, otherwise they’d probably be doing a little better.

Moldbug proposed that Reform Judaism is Judaism infected with the Progressive virus, where Progressivism itself is a viral form of Mainline Protestant (ie Puritan) Christianity that has shed its specifically theistic aspects in order to compete in our officially a-religious political sphere.

But how much could just be convergent memetic evolution, given an identical meme-vironment?


17 thoughts on “Judaism as Memetic Model

  1. Regarding memetic infection versus convergent evolution, in the abstract they would be hard to tease apart. But history is not abstract. You can study the lives and writings of various progressives in history and see who they associated with, who they got progressive religious ideas from, if they had public influence, etc. Moldbug’s thesis is, presumably, based on his historical reading. I.e. consider Franz Boas: where did he get his ideas? La wik: “Franz Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia. Although his grandparents were observant Jews, his parents embraced Enlightenment values, including their assimilation into modern German society. Boas’s parents were educated, well-to-do, and liberal…”. Infection.

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  2. I don’t think I can get used to “mitochondrial” vs “viral” and will keep with parasitic vs. symbiotic. Sorry 🙂

    I’ve re-read Moldbug’s “How Dawkins Got Pwned” (Part 1) maybe a year ago and found his thinking on what characterizes a parasitic memeplex to be muddled. Lots of needed corrections in the comments, but I don’t think he took it to heart.

    I suspect strong mutual interactions between the bad parts of progressivism, excessive outbreeding (loss of biological tribe) and technological/capitalistic evolution. (Even the progressive parts of “The Tribe” in the US are probably significantly more outbred than their shtetl forefathers, but I suspect it’s relatively worse for Euro-Americans, which could explain some phenomena.)


    • Horizontal and vertically-transmitted memes works, too! It’s all metaphor, after all.

      US Jews are out-breeding at a rate of +50%, with that concentrated among liberal Jews (Orthodox Jews are far more likely to marry other Jews.) This is higher than the rates for other Euros, (I think the overall white rate is 2%,) but the folks they are marrying mostly are other Euros. If it weren’t for the fecundity of the Orthodox, (American) Judaism would cease being genetically Jewish.

      As the other commentator noted, I think Reform Judaism got its start in German cities, where emancipated Jews wanted to act/be more like their newly available gentile business partners. Orthodox Judaism I think was more of a shtetl phenomenon, something like conservative rural charismatics in the US. But I’m not sure the modern Orthodox are descended genetically from this group, (I think they were largely wiped out in the Holocaust.)


  3. But how much could just be convergent memetic evolution, given an identical meme-vironment?

    A very surprising, and devilish suggestion, but has too many moving parts for me to wrap my head around. Vertically transmitted memes (gene model) are far more likely to be adaptively beneficial (looking out for the host, ergo kids inherit them). Horizontally transmitted (virus model) are far less likely (looking out for the virus, people are stoopid, but the virus wins).

    Convergence implies (I think) very strong advantages to phenotypic expressions. So how could Christianity and Judaism be independently converging on an expression which clearly causes each of them to have FEWER kids? I mean if it were converging on them having MOAR kids, then I’d totally get that. Patriarchy is the paragon of convergent social evolution.

    Or maybe there’s something in convergent evolution that I don’t get. I mean it makes total sense that a non-benign virus would cause similar maladaptive behaviors (flu-like symptoms) in different species of hosts (e.g., Christian and Jew), but would we call that convergence??


    • To rephrase the question, what if mass media/newspapers/books/the internet, etc., constitute a novel environment which selects for selfless acts that benefit the group/others as a whole at the expense of the individual (or at least, claiming to believe in such selflfess acts) regardless of the people involved?

      For example, forgoing childbearing in order to save the planet from over-population, donating money to save people in foreign countries from starvation, giving up one’ “privilege” to help the “unprivileged,” all sound like noble sacrifices and people like to pressure other people to do them.

      A whale looks like a fish because they both live in water; perhaps almost all societies, if given Facebook, would start developing some form of Progressivism.


      • Except that the more religious tend to be more selfless (they give more to charity, in general), while the less religious tend towards greater narcissism (orthodox Jews donate anonymously, reformed Jews run triathlons).


      • @Jefferson I agree; the data I have seen on charity indicate that conservatives tend to do more volunteer work and donate more to charity than liberals, which probably holds true for Jews.

        Horizontally-spread memes tend to favor broad statements about what other people should (or shouldn’t) do that make the speaker sound pious and good. Vertically-spread memes tend to exhort the self toward action, because they have nowhere else to go. So liberals vote for socialism, and nuns run soup kitchens.

        Orthodox Jews talk a lot about the importance of giving to charity; Reform Jews are big on SJW-style projects. But I don’t have hard numbers.


    • That’s because this is one (of a few) of HBD’s self refuting hypotheses. Either we’re seeing multiple disparate populations experience superficially identical bouts of deleterious mutation (everyone who isn’t super religious stops having kids everywhere all at once), or we’re seeing an environmental change that interacts with genes that previously conferred fitness but under these circumstances do not. If religiousness is highly hereditary, and fecundity correlates with religiousness, but religiousness is going down over time, the model is broken.


      • Religion is currently correlated with fecundity, but I have no particular reason to believe it was in the past, when fecundity probably depended more on factors like, “Did you catch the plague?” or “How good are you at hunting?” My great-great grandmother, for example, had over a dozen children, but half of them died in infancy; the difference between her and someone who had more surviving children was probably genetic or environmental (eg, nutrition), rather than religious.

        At this point, religiosity is probably mostly interchangeable with “conservative;” conservatives move less quickly toward any kind of change, including both the change toward using birth control and toward atheism.

        If there is any true genetic influence on religiosity, I suspect is is in a vaguer sense of “ways of experiencing the world,” where some people experience wonder and awe, and some people do not; or a belief that one should follow in the ways of one’s ancestors and community vs. a lack of such belief; rather than a specific genetic tendency to believe in a specific deity or not.

        I know that sounds really fuzzy and hand-wavy.


      • If I might posit an alternative hypothesis, nearly everyone is religious, but how an individual manifests his religiosity is tied to his level of narcissism (which is another factor that is hereditary, correlates with low TFR, but is going up when it should be going down). Traditional, conservative religions, like parenting, demand that an individual operates within boundaries, while more “liberal” religions are willing to compromise their boundaries for their followers (i.e. are more demotic). The removal of any given social boundary is likely to have a short term environmental effect on a population as individuals whose status striving would have been limited surge ahead (in teems of status), and often do so with technological innovation, bringing everyone up with them. The problems we’re seeing now (low TFR, ethno-masochism, etc.) are the inevitable result of environmental pressures, over generations, favoring narcissism. Western culture (which is world culture) is a celebration of narcissism, hence pressure against family (which restricts its individual members’ paths towards status).


  4. I wonder if you had considered progressivism as retrovirus. It’s primary strength being in bad copying. I remember playing around with this idea a while back. Don’t remember what the scuttlebut was.


  5. Firstly, reformed, conservative, and atheist Jews are not nearly as Jewish genetically as orthodox (70% intermarriage, so their 1.7 TFR is only 1.2 Jewish TFR). Since this trend had existed for a while, the numbers are already a bit skewed.

    Secondly, expect the numbers heading from non orthodox to orthodox to go up. Large families have no place in the non orthodox communities, and Jews who don’t intermarry are likely to be turned off by the decreasing jewishness of reformed/conservative Judaism.

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