Cathedral Round-Up #20: The Ideological Cult of the SJW

Let’s talk about cults.

I. In Educating Teachers: Harvard gets serious about training its graduates to teach in the classroom, Sophia Nguyen writes:

This is something that’s interesting about HTF,” Quan Le ’15 said. “We literally cry every day.” …

Note: Quan Le is male.

Sometimes the crying became infectious. On one morning in early June, the fellows sat in a basement classroom for their daily “teaching lab,” where they studied and rehearsed classroom management strategies that they could try out on the high-schoolers later that day. They broke up into two discussion groups, and, while debating last night’s reading on cultural sensitivity, one-half of the room broke down. Voices rose: I just want to push back a little on what you said. I think this is very problematic. I’d like to ask you to unpack this point. I don’t think that’s the culture of low-income people—I think that’s a deficit-based model. The fellows, freshly graduated from the College, were fluent in left-leaning liberal-arts classroom etiquette. Yet the conversation grew tenser, then tearful, even as everyone insisted they had no real conflict. Someone burst out, frustrated, “I agree with you!”

“It’s not like class,” one of them said, finally, face in hands. “It really matters to me. I feel really attacked. I care so much about this stuff, and when the whole group disagrees with me, I can’t take it.”

Noah Heller, HTF’s master teacher-in-residence for math, interceded gently. “We need to work on tuning together. I don’t hear people disagreeing with you, I really don’t. We’re having a robust discussion.”

“It’s so exhausting. I’m so sorry, I cry all the time.” The fellow took a breath. “I’m getting really defensive. I think we all really need to remember that we’re all here to help kids.” At some point, everyone in the circle of chairs had begun holding hands. “There’s not always agreeing or disagreeing,” someone offered helpfully. “Sometimes it’s just—this stuff is really hard, and we’re just trying to figure out what we feel.”

The students in this article are not recruits going through Basic Training in the military. They are not doctors enduring 48 hour hospital shifts. They are Harvard grads learning to be teachers. I have a great deal of respect for teachers and know they work hard, but there is absolutely no reason they should be weeping every day.

Seriously, if anything in this excerpt sounds like your real life, please get help immediately. THIS IS NOT EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY OR NORMAL.


II. One of the things I appreciate about memetics is that it allows us to think about the spread and propagation of ideas independent of the intentions of the people who hold them. Or as Wikipedia puts it:

Memetics is the theory of mental content based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution, originating from the popularization of Richard Dawkins‘ 1976 book The Selfish Gene.[1] Proponents describe memetics as an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer.

The meme, analogous to a gene, was conceived as a “unit of culture” (an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc.) which is “hosted” in the minds of one or more individuals, and which can reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind. Thus what would otherwise be regarded as one individual influencing another to adopt a belief is seen as an idea-replicator reproducing itself in a new host. As with genetics, particularly under a Dawkinsian interpretation, a meme’s success may be due to its contribution to the effectiveness of its host.

Memetics is also notable for sidestepping the traditional concern with the truth of ideas and beliefs. Instead, it is interested in their success.[2]

In other words, “memes” (ideas) act like viruses or, as I wrote previously, “mitochondria.” (Note: unlike real viruses, most ideas you believe are probably beneficial.)

We like to think of ourselves as logical, rational beings who believe things because we’ve concluded that they make sense, but taking the example of religion, the idea that millions of people in North Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia, etc., have all independently and logically decided that there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet, every generation, for over a thousand years–and people in Europe have decided similarly that God is a Trinity, became man, and was sacrificed for your sins; people in India have believed that your soul can be reincarnated; and people in Central America once decided that the most logical thing was to rip people’s still-beating hearts out of their chests in order to keep the sun in the sky (I mean, sure, maybe the world won’t end even if we don’t sacrifice 400 virgins, but do you really want to take the chance?)–defies logic.

If we can look at religions as memeplexes–networks of interrelated ideas–that exist over time independent of the particular people who believe in them, we can similarly interrogate political ideologies. Like your religious beliefs (or non-belief,) your professed political ideology likely has a good deal to do with factors entirely outside of “logical thought,” like genetics, social class, or the region of the country you live in (otherwise it is strangely coincidental that the Deep South has been “conservative” relative to the rest of the country for hundreds of years.)

As we discussed in the previous Cathedral Round Up, You are the Hope of the World, what we see as “modern” Progressivism existed back in 1917. 1917 is not some special year–Progressivism actually began long before then, but we’re not tracing the idea’s history; you can get your fix of that from Moldbug.

Moldbug (and many others,) also suggests that Progressivism is really a religion, just stripped of the explicit references to God. Whether or not this is literally true, from a memetics perspective, both religions and political ideologies function similarly. As Jonas Kaplan states:

Perhaps this is due to some underlying aspect of human cognition or social structure, or perhaps successful memes all share certain features that enhance their spread and temporal persistence. Either way, we can productively use the same vocabulary and concepts to discuss both.


III. Most people recognize that cults exist and that cults are bad, but few people who are actually in cults believe that they are in a cult. As Boze Herrington notes in The Atlantic, The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult:

For three weeks, Hannah and I had been trying to contact leaders at [International House of Prayer; no relation to the restaurant] about a prayer group that we, Bethany, and many of our friends had been part of—a small, independent community that drew on IHOP’s teachings. In February, I had been formally excommunicated, and Hannah had left in June. Looking in from the outside, both of us saw the group differently than we had when we were part of it: We saw it as a cult.

Several years ago, the founder of IHOP, Mike Bickle, created a list of seven ways to recognize the difference between a religious community and a cult. Written down, the signs seem clear:

1. Opposing critical thinking
2. Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving
3. Emphasizing special doctrines outside scripture
4. Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leaders
5. Dishonoring the family unit
6. Crossing Biblical boundaries of behavior (versus sexual purity and personal ownership)
7. Separation from the Church

But when it’s your friends, your faith, your community, it’s not so obvious. For several years, roughly two dozen people, all younger than thirty, had been living together in Kansas City, Missouri, and following the leadership of Tyler Deaton, one of our classmates from Southwestern University in Texas. In the summer of 2012, Tyler had married Bethany; by the fall, she was dead. What started as a dorm-room prayer group had devolved into something much darker.

You can find many different definitions of “cult” out there; obviously “Crossing Biblical boundaries,” does not apply so much to political ideologies.

Reminder: some people actually think this way

Personally, I’d say that among the critical defining characteristics of cults:

  1. Cults teach people that their self-worth (the salvation of their souls, their essential goodness, etc.,) is dependent on adherence to the cult’s teachings
  2. They use of social ostracism to punish even slight deviation from a very rigid set of beliefs.
  3. They isolate their members from everyone outside the cult.

People who have been convinced to cut off contact with friends and family end up far more vulnerable to ostracism by the cult because they now have nowhere left to go nor anyone to help them if they leave.

If you were a real SJW, you’d pay $35 for this sweatshirt

Note, though, that there is no particular thing cultists need to believe, besides in the absoluteness of the cult. Memetically speaking, cults typically do not generate their own ideologies, but rather are metastisized versions of regular ones. Cults work, in part, because the people in them already believe in the importance of the basic ideas the cults are based on–there wouldn’t be much point in joining a cult you didn’t believe in.

Christian cults therefore draw in people who already believe in Christianity; New-Agey cults draw in people who believe in New-Agey sorts of things; Islamic cults draw in people who believe in Islam. This pre-existing belief primes people to believe the cult’s message, and also makes it hard to distinguish between the cult and regular, non-cultish believers of the same memeplex. The cult essentially hides behind the legitimacy of regular believers while simultaneously attacking them for being insufficiently rigorous in their beliefs.

Let’s take Marie Shear’s oft-repeated adage, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

Pretty much everyone agrees that women are people. I wager that even under the most female-oppressive regimes on Earth, the vast majority of people agree that women are “people,” not unicorns, glorified fungi, or inanimate objects. Talk to someone from Saudi Arabia, and they’ll tell you that their country is great for women, because they protect women from rape and sexual objectification.

(I have actually read an academic article arguing that female genital mutilation can be seen as pro-women in certain contexts.)

The quote’s appeal is two-fold: first, it implies that “feminism” is a mainstream belief because everyone who believes that women are people are feminists, and second, it implies that anyone who doesn’t identify as a feminist doesn’t believe that women are people. All sensible, right-thinking people, therefore, are clearly feminists–and feminists are sensible, right-thinking people.

In reality, though, we know that this is not a useful definition of feminism.

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex has helped popularize Nicholas Shackel’s phrase “Motte and Bailey doctrine” to refer to the practice of using an easily defended but not very useful (to the feminist) rhetorical position, eg, “Women are people” to protect a large swathe of much harder to defend but more useful positions, like “abortion should always be legal,” or “college campuses aren’t doing enough to prosecute rape.”

A motte-and-bailey is a kind of Medieval fortress in which an earthenwork tower (the motte) is used to defend a large field with a wall around it. The field is difficult to defend, but a good place for farming; the hill is easy to defend, but bad for farming.

Cults use this same technique to portray their beliefs as reasonable–things all good members of members of Group X believe, and aren’t you a good member of Group X?–while hiding their unreasonable beliefs and the harm they do to their members.


IV. You have probably already figured out that I think modern Social Justice Warrior ideology is effectively a cult.

Now, there are some folks around these parts who see any liberalism as dangerous or inevitably leading in a bad direction. I tend to see both “liberalism” and “conservatism” personality types, heavily influenced by genetics, independent of the particular politics of the day. A functional society benefits from the strengths of both types, so long as everyone is behaving themselves and not behaving like cult members out to crush any and all deviation from their particular version of the One True Truth.

In his post titled “Untitled,” Scott Alexander discusses feminists’ reaction to a comment by quantum computing genius Scott Aaronson. We’ll start with an excerpt from Aaronson’s original comment:

I check Feministing, and even radfem blogs like “I Blame the Patriarchy.” And yes, I’ve read many studies and task force reports about gender bias, and about the “privilege” and “entitlement” of the nerdy males that’s keeping women away from science. …

I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year. …

I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. … I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. …

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused…

To repeat my comment from the beginning of this post, if anything in this excerpt sounds like your real life, please get help immediately. THIS IS NOT EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY OR NORMAL.

People who are not familiar with modern feminism (this includes many of my liberal friends, who are too busy with jobs, kids, friends, etc., to keep up with the Outrage du Jour,) might feel tempted to write off Aaronson’s experience as just one weird guy’s absurd, abnormal reaction–surely normal people don’t become suicidal or try to castrate themselves after reading about microaggressions. After all, feminism is just the idea that women are people, right? Surely feminists, being reasonable people, reacted to Aaronson with the explanations he’d been looking for (or at least links to them) and some compassion for his suicidal state.

Alexander quotes famous feminist Amanda Marcotte’s response:

[Aaronson’s post] is the whole “how can men be oppressed when I don’t get to have sex with all the hot women that I want without having to work for it?” whine, one that, amongst other things, starts on the assumption that women do not suffer things like social anxiety or rejection…It was just a yalp of entitlement combined with an aggressive unwillingness to accept that women are human beings just like men. [He is saying that] “having to explain my suffering to women when they should already be there, mopping my brow and offering me beers and blow jobs, is so tiresome…I was too busy JAQ-ing off, throwing tantrums, and making sure the chip on my shoulder was felt by everyone in the room to be bothered to do something like listen.” Women are failing him by not showing up naked in his bed, unbidden. Because bitches, yo.

The eternal struggle of the sexist: Objective reality suggests that women are people, but the heart wants to believe they are a robot army put here for sexual service and housework.

Alexander notes, “Anyway, Marcotte was bad enough, given that she runs one of the most-read feminist blogs on the Internet. But much of the rest of the feminist “discussion” on Tumblr, Twitter, and the like was if anything even worse,” then discusses an article by Laurie Penny in New Statesman, called “On Nerd Entitlement: White Male Nerds Need To Recognize That Other People Had Traumatic Upbringings Too And That’s Different From Structural Oppression”:

Feminism is not to blame for making life hell for “shy, nerdy men”. It is a real shame that Aaronson picked up Andrea Dworkin rather than any of the many feminist theorists and writers who manage to combine raw rage with refusal to resort to sexual shame as an instructive tool. Weaponised shame – male, female or other – has no place in any feminism I subscribe to.

Alexander responds:

I live in a world where feminists throwing weaponized shame at nerds is an obvious and inescapable part of daily life. Whether we’re “mouth-breathers”, “pimpled”, “scrawny”, “blubbery”, “sperglord”, “neckbeard”, “virgins”, “living in our parents’ basements”, “man-children” or whatever the insult du jour is, it’s always, always, ALWAYS a self-identified feminist saying it. Sometimes they say it obliquely, referring to a subgroup like “bronies” or “atheists” or “fedoras” while making sure everyone else in nerddom knows it’s about them too. …

But it’s not just that. Try to look up something on Iron Man, and you get an article on Iron Man-Child and how “the white maleness of geek culture” proves they are “the most useless and deficient individuals in society, precisely because they have such a delusional sense of their own importance and entitlements.”…

Let’s recap, because this has gotten a little long. Aaronson states that he is “97%” on board with feminism, and explains that his 3% reservation is due to feminism making him feel suicidal for the sin of finding women attractive. Feminists respond with incredible cruelty. One feminist claims that in her universe, feminists aren’t cruel. Alexander responds, with evidence, that feminists are constantly cruel, at least toward people like him and Aaronson.

Ms. Penny, I’m pretty sure gaslighting and lying are also signs of being in a cult.

Just how bad is the left? And are they actually any worse than the right? Perhaps both sides just have their bad apples…

Trump supporter beaten by protestors
protester beaten with hammer by Black Lives Matter protesters
Trump supporter attacked by protesters

Ah, those happy college days!

And let’s not forget the recent violent riots at Berkley, which according to CNN caused $100,000 in damages, (mostly to innocent nearby businesses like refugee-supporting Starbucks,) nor the recent incident at Middlebury, in which a mob of students attempted to shut down a speech by Charles Murray and violently assaulted a professor, who ended up in the hospital:

The more exclusive the university, the richer and more liberal the students. The less exclusive, the poorer and more conservative. Ironically, it’s these elite students (who benefit most from “privilege”) who are violently opposing speakers in the name of “equality,” not conservatives at little podunk-Us.

Here’s an excerpt from Help-giving and moral courage on the Internet, by Suna P. Kinnunen1, Marjaana Lindeman2, Markku Verkasalo3:

(In other words, folks like Amanda Marcotte and the instigators of online Twitter mobs are probably sociopaths. The internet has created an environment where sociopathic behavior can thrive under the guise of “morally courageous action”)

So, to answer our question… No.


V. Here’s some more cultish material from the SJWs:

“Everybody to the right of us is literally Hitler.”

Dozens of media outlets all using the exact same language:

Meanwhile, one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country would like you to know that Super Mario Run is sexist and bad for children.

Yeah, there’s nothing at all creepy or harmful about preventing your children from consuming completely innocuous children’s media, cutting them off from the common cultural knowledge of their peer group.

Oh, and by the way, 1985 wasn’t some Dark Age of sexism–we are talking about the era of Great Britain’s first female Prime Minister, after all.

Meanwhile, from the “bodypositivists,” “we don’t understand how attraction works”:

Meanwhile, Ivy League University Penn is apparently a hotbed of racism:














And for students whose professors are insufficiently racist, SJWs have put together a handy guide to making family gatherings as unplesant as possible:














VI. Let’s have some conclusions.

Regardless of what you think of leftists in general–and I know many leftists who are basically good-hearted, well-intentioned people–the extreme left, born of academia and particularly active on the internet, works like a cult.

This is a difficult position to explain to someone who has not experienced it personally, or seen a loved one affected by it. During the long process by which this blog came to exist, I struggled to reconcile my own morality–my sense of myself as a “good person”–with the statistical data I was reading. How could a good person believe in statistical differences between groups in criminal offending rates, or measured IQ scores? Did merely believing such a thing make me a bad person?

I tended to keep such ideas to myself; far more innocuous statements in conversation with friends and acquaintances were often responded to with anger, threats, or explicit shunning. I lost most of my college-friends due to shunning, and I’ve had it far better than some.

Since abandoning my identity as a leftist, I’ve also abandoned the idea that my morality is based in believing the correct things. If tomorrow I discovered that there are no group-level differences in IQ or criminal behavior, this would change nothing about how I see myself. (In fact, I’d be perfectly pleased by such a discovery.) Rather, I see my morality in how I treat those around me–family, friends, random strangers I meet in everyday life.

When ideas spread because they are true or useful, they make life better. The Germ Theory of Disease has saved billions of lives. Belief in Santa Claus makes children happy, even if he isn’t real.

But sometimes ideas spread even though they fundamentally lack utility. The classic example of this is the chain letter, which people spread because it tells them to, even though it contains nothing of worth. The modern version of the chain letter are Facebook Memes that say things like, “99% of people don’t love Jesus enough to repost this meme” or “If you really love your relative with cancer, you’ll repost this meme,” or “90% of people can’t answer this simple math problem!” It’s easy to see how #activism slides into pure meme re-posting.

These sorts of memes are annoying but fairly harmless. It’s when memes mutate into ideologies that judge the essential goodness of their believers on their willingness to devote their lives to spreading the meme that they become dangerous. You end up with purity spirals that end in martyrdom–self-sacrifice for the spread of the meme. The spread of such ideas through society can be see, quite reasonably, as cancerous.

One final excerpt, from the LA Times:

Easy Nofemela remembers the evening Amy Biehl died. … a mob of angry young men was looking for symbols of white rule to destroy.

Then the men spotted Biehl, blond and blue-eyed, as she drove through the township in her yellow Mazda.

“Rocks were being thrown at Amy’s car. She got out and ran, and she was stabbed right over there,” Nofemela says, pointing to a patch of grass next to a service station, now planted with a small cross.

Nofemela remembers, 15 years later, because he was part of the mob that killed Amy Biehl.

What he didn’t know then was that Biehl was hardly a symbol of apartheid. She was a Fulbright scholar studying the lives of women in South Africa, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate with a plane ticket for home the next day, from an airport 10 minutes away. …

Today, Nofemela, a compact 37-year-old with a shaved head and a quick wit, is the father of a young girl. And, in an improbable tale of forgiveness and redemption, he and Ntobeko Peni, another of the men convicted of the murder, now work for the charity Biehl’s parents founded here after she was killed. …

An engaging woman of 65 with a blond bob and a warm smile, she has grown exceptionally close to her daughter’s killers. “Easy and Ntobeko are fascinating and I really do love them,” she says. “They have given me so much.”

Linda Biehl and her late husband, Peter, launched the Amy Biehl Foundation in 1994 with donations that arrived, unsolicited, from strangers moved by the news of their daughter’s death. Today, it runs after-school programs for youngsters in Guguletu and other townships and squatter camps that took root during the apartheid era on the Cape flats, about 10 miles east of Cape Town.

Guys, if anyone ever murders me, I encourage you to murder them back.

Can one be a principled moderate?

And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot! So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. — Revelations, 3:14-16

“No one likes a Jesus freak.” — Anon, the internet

From a memetic point of view, most ideologies would like their adherents to be strong believers. What good to memetic Christianity, after all, is someone who does not bother to spread Christianity? As a matter of principle, there is something hypocritical–intellectually inconsistent or dishonest–about people who profess to believe an ideology, but lay down some boundary beyond which they do not bother to follow it.

And yet, at the same time, we often feel a very practical aversion to ideological extremists. People who believe in social safety nets so because they don’t want poor people to starve in the streets may also genuinely believe that communism was a disaster.

Ideologies are rather like maps, and I have yet to encounter a map that accurately reflected every aspect of the Earth’s surface at once (Mercator maps of Greenland, I am looking at you.) The world is a complicated place, and all ideological models seek to illuminate human behavior by reducing them to understandable patterns.

Like any map, this is both a strength and a weakness. We do not throw out a map because it is imperfect; even a Mercator map is still a valuable tool. We also do not deny the existence of a sandbar we have just struck simply because it is not on our charts. Even religions, which profess perfection due to divine revelation, must still be actually put into practice by obviously imperfect human believers.

In extreme versions of ideologies, the goal often ceases to be some practical, real world outcome, and becomes instead proving one’s own ideological purity. SJWs are the most common embodiment of this tendency, arguing endlessly over matters like, “Does Goldiblocks’s advertising/packaging de-value girls’ princess play?” or “Asking immigrants not to rape is racist colonialization of POC bodies.” There are many organizations out there trying to decrease the number of black people who are murdered every year, but you have probably never heard of any of the successful ones. By contrast, the one group liberals actually support and pay attention to, “Black Lives Matter,” has, by driving police out of black communities, actually increased the number of black people who’ve been murdered.

Within the holiness spiral, actually denying reality becomes the easiest way to prove to be even holier than the next guy. The doctrine of transubstantiation claims that a piece of bread has been transformed into the body of Christ even though no physical, observable change has occurred. Almost everyone agrees that the police shouldn’t choke people to death during routine arrests; it takes true devotion to believe that the police shouldn’t shoot back at people who are shooting at them.

A holiness spiral is only useful if you’re actually spiraling into holiness.

The simple observation that extreme versions of ideologies often seem to lead their followers to lose contact with reality is perhaps reason enough for someone to profess some form of principled moderatism.

And yet, I know for certain that were I a religious person, I would not be moderate. (I base this on my childhood approach to religion and the observances of my biological relatives–I wager I have a genetic inclination toward intense religiosity.) Since few people convert away from the religion they were raised with, if I were a believer from a Hindu family, I’d be a devout Hindu; if I were a believer from a Catholic family, I’d attend mass in Latin; if Jewish, I’d be Orthodox Jewish. You get the picture.

After all, what is the point of going to Heaven (or Hell,) only a little bit?

To be continued.


Religion’s Remarkable Memetic Conservation

As a means of memetic conservation, religions are amazing.

The Catholics still release all of their official documents in Latin, a language that disappeared in its natural habitat about 1,500 years ago (and conducted all of their rituals around the world in Latin until 1964).

Many Protestants, while not quite as archaic, prefer the now fancy sounding language of the King James Bible, with its “Thou”s and “art”s. (And many other Christian denominations preserve other archaic languages, like Koine Greek in the Greek Orthodox Church, Coptic in Coptic churches and Church Slavonic in, I guess, Slavic churches, and German among the Amish.)

Islam preserves the 7th century Arabic of the Qu’ran (apparently “written” Arabic and “spoken” Arabic are quite distinct, somewhat like if everyone in Italy spoke “Italian” but wrote in 7th century church Latin.)

Diasporic Judaism preserved Hebrew for almost 2,000 years after the destruction of the Temple, and managed to do a good enough job that it has been revived and is now the official language of Israel. (I think Arabic is, too.)

Sanskrit plays the same role for Hinduism, Jainism, and some Buddhist sects. The oldest known work in Sanskrit, the Rigveda, was composed a bit over 3,000 years ago, though I do not know if modern Sanskrit speakers find the Rigveda any more intelligible than I find Beowulf. [note: see the comments for a better explanation of the origins of the Rigveda.]

According to the Wikipedia,

Theravada Buddhism uses Pali as its main liturgical language, and prefers its scriptures to be studied in the original Pali. In Thailand, Pali is written using the Thai alphabet, resulting in a Thai pronunciation of the Pali language.

… In some Japanese rituals, Chinese texts are read out or recited with the Japanese pronunciations of their constituent characters, resulting in something unintelligible in both languages.[1]

(Apparently the Tamil language is also important in Hinduism.)

If you want to preserve a language, write some religious texts in it and then insist that everyone has to learn your language in order to participate in your worship services and go to Heaven.

On top of this, the Christian Bible preserves the Jewish scriptures that predate it. You’re probably so used to this that you don’t even really notice it, but it’s actually pretty weird. So you’re going along in your Christian Bible study, learning about Jesus and whatnot, and then there are these obscure bits of Judean political history from 1,000 BC or something. Like that time King Ahab wanted to buy a field but the farmer wouldn’t sell it to him, so the queen had the farmer executed and then he took it. Or that time in Judges when Ehud assassinated King Eglon.

The Bible also preserves the Jewish Law, which, of course, Christians don’t actually follow. EG:

When men fight with one another, and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Deuteronomy 25:11-12

Okay, so if your wife tried to physically drag you out of a fight by your testicles you would probably be in horrible pain as a result, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of situation that comes up very often. But remember, the law also bans pork. I can understand why the Jews think it’s important that their religious book still have all of the notes about not eating bacon or boiling goats in milk or wearing mixed fibers, because The Law is still really important to them. But why on Earth do Christians?

Then take a festival like Purim. Purim is kind of like the Jewish Halloween, but with more Bible and no devils. Kids dress up in costumes, eat a bunch of sweets, go to synagogue, listen to the story of Queen Esther, and everyone makes a bunch of noise to “blot out the name” of some Persian court official who tried to massacre the Jews about 2,500 years ago.

Of course, if there weren’t a holiday devoted to the subject, no one would remember the guy’s name at all; at this point, we’re not even sure if the story is true.

The fact that Judaism is considered a “major world religion” at all is because a chunk of it is inside Christianity; there actually aren’t that many Jews. More people practice some form of Voodoo/Vodun than Judaism, but when’s the last time you saw Voodoo listed as a major world religion?

I got laughed at in school for listing Voodoo as one of the 5 major world religions.

The Christmas rituals (gifts, tree,) also date back thousands of years to ancient Roman and German pre-Christian practices.

And, of course, there’s morality. Obviously many liberal branches of religion toss out moral precepts and adopt new ones as they see fit, but the presence of a line in the text explicitly banning (or encouraging) something seems to have a long-term effect. (Take snake-handling Christian sects, which take the line in the Bible about Christians being able to drink poison and handle snakes without getting killed very seriously.)

Personally, I think the Gospels have a very socialist feel to them. Of course, I am applying a completely anachronistic political label to something that predates “socialism” by nearly two millennia, but I think you know what I mean. All of that business about “give away allof your earthly goods to the poor and come follow me,” or “it is easier for a rich man to fit through the eye of a needle than to enter Heaven,” or the disciples holding all of their property in common in the Book of Acts.

As a result, Christianity has created many charitable or even socialist movements over the past two thousand years, and will probably keep doing so. The “Christian Communists” of the 1800s, like the Shakers, are one set of examples.

Secular “religions” can be memetically conservative, too. Take the American “Thanksgiving”–every year, people get together with their families to eat turkey (the ritual feast) and watch football because approximately 400 years ago, some Pilgrims had a good harvest and so didn’t all die in the winter. Most of us probably aren’t even related to the Pilgrims, but we do it anyway.

Conservatives, as I’ve noted, treat the Constitution kind of like a religious founding document.

Much of the time, the explicit justification for religious rituals has little to do with why people actually observe them. Most Americans don’t really care about the Pilgrims one way or another; I bet most Jews don’t care about Haman anymore, either. Most Catholics probably think it’d be fine if the church just started publishing official documents in Italian, and even atheists give each other gifts on Christmas. The function of these rituals is often very different from their form–Thanksgiving is really about family togetherness, not Pilgrims. Likewise, the current push to get rid of Columbus day and replace it with Indigenous Culture Day isn’t really a statement that indigenous peoples were better than Columbus (after all, the Aztecs were cannibals.)

The functions of religion are myriad, but marking important life transitions, assuaging fears of death, teaching morality, and binding the community together are all obviously significant. Perhaps religion functions better when the memes are older than when they are newer. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether or not you can understand the liturgy, but a liturgy that gives you the impression of being connected to your ancient ancestors may function better than one that doesn’t; a generic “Thanksgiving is a time to be with our families,” may not work as well as a “Thanksgiving is a celebration of the feast between the Pilgrims and the Indians.”

Do you have any other good examples of this phenomenon?

Scandal that should have never been: Satanic Daycares

Hey, readers in their 30s or above, remember the 80s? And the Satanic Daycare Scare?

It all started with a bunch of bad therapy, The Exorcist, and rumors of West African secret societies. (And probably drugs.) It ended with thousands of people being accused of ritually abusing, murdering, and eating children–50,000 a year–as part of a million-member multi-generational secret Satanic cult. Many of the accused went to prison; some are still in prison.

I think most of us would like to pretend that never happened, but it did.

The worst of it is not that gullible housewives of the out-party gobbled up this blather from Geraldo Rivera, Oprah, or evangelical preachers. Ignorant people have always believed ignorant things. The worst of it is that Janet Reno–and many other supposedly intelligent people in positions of actual authority–believed this bullshit, and yet is still allowed to have a job making decisions that affect the lives of other people.

(And we expect people not to fall for bullshit that sounds halfway decent?)


People believed a lot of dubious things in the 70s and 80s. They believed in “pyramid power,” UFOs, and telekinesis. Enough LSD, and you can probably believe all sorts of things.

Unfortunately, they didn’t have the internet or Wikipedia or even Snopes, so it was a lot harder to figure out when someone was putting one over you. If you’re living in Oklahoma in 1980, chances are you’re not exactly sure what’s going on over in California, but you’re pretty sure it has something to do with godless heathens and demons, because for goodness’s sakes, it’s California, they had that Manson guy. And when someone starts repeating rumors about ritually sacrificed chickens in Toronto or human sacrifice cults in Uganda, or actual Satanists* practicing openly in California (again with the California!) then it’s time to freak out because the agents of Satan are clearly on the march.

*While there exists an actual “Church of Satan” founded by Anton LaVey in 1966, none of the members of the CoS were ever charged with ritual Satanic abuse or murder, and according to Wikipedia, they don’t even worship Satan, they just call themselves that to stick up a middle finger to society. But the mere fact that these people existed was enough to send a good number of respectable housewives into pearl-clutching tizzies.

If we want to be especially thorough, the widespread conviction that witches and devils were conspiring together long predates the 1980s; James R. Lewis’s “The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements” has an excellent chapter (#10) that traces the development of the Christian witchcraft myth through the occultism of the late 1800s, feminist propaganda, the emergence of the Neopagan movement, H. P. Lovecraft, etc. But for the sake of time, we’re starting with the recovered memory movement.

Back in the 70s, when feminists weren’t busy proclaiming that the Christian Patriarchy had murdered millions of Medieval witches in order to stamp out a once-universal Matriarchal religion and therefore all women should abandon Christianity and become Neopagans, (not only is this factually untrue, but I was actually assigned readings on the subject in my totally respectable university course on Feminism 101,) they were promoting the idea that America was a seething hotbed of violence–rape and abuse–directed primarily at women and children.

Of course, unlike Medieval witches, rape and abuse are real, but often difficult to prove sufficiently in a court of law to get a conviction–once two people are behind closed doors, what happened next often becomes a matter of he-said-she-said, and you are not actually supposed to convict based on “story sounded convincing” in the absence of any actual evidence a crime took place.

And for good reason–otherwise, anyone could put their personal enemies or rivals in prison for life simply by make up a story.

The feminists’ response to this was a push for all claims of rape and abuse to be accepted without question. To question even the most outrageous story was treated as an act of violence against already victimized women.

At about the same time, psychiatrists discovered that you can get people to say all manner of crazy things while under hypnosis, and promptly used their new-found powers to convince mentally ill women in their care that they had been victims of ritual Satanic abuse.

You can use hypnosis to convince people that the number “3” does not exist, then watch them attempt to count their fingers–“One, two, four, five, six.” You can convince them that they are warm enough to shed their jackets while sitting in an ice hotel. You can get them to act like a chicken.

The fact that people will do and think absurd things while under hypnosis is why people find it entertaining. (And a little frightening.) That’s also why it’s commonly part of magic shows–but normally, people don’t believe that there are actually a bunch of rabbits in that hat.

That memories are unreliable has been extensively documented by police (and psychiatry) departments, which have to deal with conflicting and changing witness testimony all the time. Yu’ve probably also experienced this if you’ve ever gotten into a fight with your parents or spouse over something you supposedly did several years before.

It is quite easy to change people’s memories under normal conditions. EG:

Studies by Elizabeth Loftus and others have concluded that it is possible to produce false memories of childhood incidents.[24] The experiments involved manipulating subjects into believing that they had some fictitious experience in childhood, such as being lost in a shopping mall at age 6. This involved using a suggestive technique called “familial informant false narrative procedure,” in which the experimenter claims the validity of the false event is supported by a family member of the subject. (source)

So just saying to someone, “Oh yeah, I was talking to your Aunt Susie yesterday, and we were laughing about that time you got lost at the mall when you were six and we found you hiding under a table in the furniture department,” can make them “remember” this.

(Please only use your new-found powers for good.)

To convince someone they were the victim of ritual Satanic abuse:

  1. Get a patient, preferably suffering some mental illness like schizophrenia or depression, but insomnia or headaches will suffice.
  2. Put them under hypnosis and suggest that their troubles are due to “repressed” memories of childhood trauma.
  3. Helpfully suggest various Satanic rituals they may have endured
  4. Encourage them to imagine a scenario in which they were abused.
  5. Un-hypnotize them and celebrate having “uncovered” their repressed memory of infant cannibalism.

If you’re really lucky, you can even get the patient to believe they have uncovered alternative personalities that they switch to under hypnosis (much like a stage magician getting a hypnotized volunteer to cluck like a chicken.)


  1. Call the police and accuse their parents of cannibalism, rape, torture, kidnapping, etc.
  2. Get taken seriously by the police!
  3. Make lots of money treating the patient for the trauma incurred by “remembering” being abused and treating their ever-expanding suite of personalities.
  4. Make even more money consulting with police across the country about Ritual Satanic Abuse, now that you’re an “expert” on the subject.

Yes, this is terribly unethical.

In 1980, a Canadian Psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder published Michelle Remembers, a “biography” purporting to document the childhood Satanic abuse his patient endured in the 50s:

Isn't that a face you can trust?
Isn’t that a face you can trust?

Interestingly, Pazder lived and worked in Nigeria in the 60s, a part of the world that actually does have legit, child-sacrificing cults. As recently as 2001, the ritually-dismembered, headless torso of “Adam,” a Nigerian child about 5 or 6 years old, was found floating in the Thames. An autopsy revealed, via stomach contents and pollen found in his lungs, that he’d only been in Britain for a few days and had drunk a potion used in West African ritual magic. (There are approximately 180,000 Nigerians living in the UK.)

Nigerian Joyce Osiagede, the only person to be arrested in Britain as part of the inquiry, has claimed that the victim’s real name is Ikpomwosa. In an interview with ITV’s London Tonight, Mrs Osiagede said she looked after the boy in Germany for a year before travelling to Britain without him in 2001. She claimed she handed the boy over to a man known as Bawa who later told her that he was dead and threatened to kill her unless she kept silent. ..

Asked who killed him, she said a ‘group of people’. She added: “They used him for a ritual in the water.” Claiming the boy was six years old, she said: ‘He was a lively boy. A very nice boy, he was also intelligent.’ Detailed analysis of a substance in the boy’s stomach was identified as a ‘black magic’ potion. It included tiny clay pellets containing small particles of pure gold, an indication that Adam was the victim of a Muti ritual killing in which it is believed that the body parts of children are sacred. Bodies are often disposed of in flowing water. (source)

These cases more normally happen in Africa, but then we tend to lack official police investigations, autopsies, and BBC articles, but there’s plenty of documentation if you look:

The Leopard Society was a West African secret society active in the early- to mid-20th century that practiced cannibalism.[1] They were centred in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nigeria.

Members would dress in leopard skins, waylaying travelers with sharp claw-like weapons in the form of leopards’ claws and teeth. The victims’ flesh would be cut from their bodies and distributed to members of the secret society. According to their beliefs, the ritual cannibalism would strengthen both members of the secret society as well as their entire tribe. (source)

The “Refworld” (Refugee World) article on human sacrifice in Nigeria (from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada) claims that,

According to various sources, ritual killings in Nigeria are performed to obtain human body parts for use in rituals, potions, and charms. The Lagos-based newspaper This Day explains that “ritualists, also known as headhunters, … go in search of human parts at the request of herbalists, who require them for sacrifices or for the preparation of various magical potions”. …

According to This Day, ritual murders are “a common practice” in Nigeria. … Similarly, a 2012 Daily Independent article states that “in recent times, the number of … brutal murders, mostly for ritual purposes and other circumstances, involving couples and their partners has been on a steady progression.” …

This Day reported that a confidential memo from the Nigerian police to registered security service providers indicated that ritual killings were particularly prevalent in the states of Lagos, Ogun, Kaduna, Abia, Kwara, Abuja, Rivers, and Kogi. … In 2010, one newspaper reported that dead bodies with missing organs were being discovered on a daily basis on a road close to Lagos State University that was described as a “hot spot for ritual killers.” A second newspaper reported in February 2011 that, in the same area, ten people had been killed in suspected ritual murders in the preceding two months. A 2009 article published by Agence France-Presse reported that, according to a state government official, the kidnapping of children for ritual murder was on the rise in Kano.

(I have removed the in-line citations because they make the article unreadable; check the original if you want their sources.)

Native Nigerian religion is basically Voodoo, aka Vodun, aka Santeria and whatever else you want to call it to confuse your audience. These are not “organized” religions, but a widespread set of common beliefs about magic and the supernatural, including, of course, the idea that ritually sacrificed bits of humans or animals have magic powers.

In other words, if you thought Boko Haram was Nigeria’s worst problem, I’m sorry.

Also, if you used to live in Nigeria, you may be forgiven for believing that ritual sacrifice and child murder are happening all over the place (though the fact that Canada doesn’t have a lot of fetish markets where you can buy animal parts for your ritual magic ought to be a tip-off that it’s a lot less common outside of Africa.)

In 1973, Pazder was back in Canada and treating Michelle, who apparently became depressed following a miscarriage. Pazder decided this must actually be a sign of repressed memories of childhood abuse (an idea that comes straight out of Freud, even though Freud himself later repudiated this train of thought and all Freudianism had been discredited and generally abandoned by the psychiatric community by the 70s, due to being psuedo-scientific nonsense.)

Uninterested in the recommended best practices in his industry, psychiatric developments of the previous 50 years, or general ethics, Pazder spent over 600 hours (over 14 months) encouraging Michelle, under hypnosis, to “remember” being ritually abused by her mother, a member of the world-wide, pre-Christian “Church of Satan” based in Victoria, Canada. According to Wikipedia,

The first alleged ritual attended by [Michelle] Smith took place in 1954 when she was five years old, and the final one documented in the book was an 81-day ritual in 1955 that summoned the devil himself and involved the intervention of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Michael the Archangel, who removed the scars received by Smith throughout the year of abuse and removed memories of the events “until the time was right”. During the rites, Smith was allegedly tortured, locked in cages, sexually assaulted, forced to take part in various rituals, witnessed several murders and was rubbed with the blood and body parts of various murdered babies and adults. …

Former neighbors, teachers and friends were interviewed and yearbooks from Smith’s elementary school were reviewed and found no indication of Smith being absent from school or missing for lengthy periods of time, including the alleged 81-day non-stop ceremony. Ultimately the book’s authors were unable to find anyone who knew Smith in the 1950s who could corroborate any of the details in her allegations.

… Among other things, Cuhulain noted that it seemed unlikely that a sophisticated cult that had secretly existed for generations could be outwitted by a five-year-old; that the cult could hold rituals in the Ross Bay Cemetery unnoticed given that Smith claimed she was screaming and given that the Ross Bay Cemetery is surrounded on three sides by residential neighborhoods; that an 81-day non-stop ceremony involving hundreds of participants and a massive round room could have gone on in Victoria unnoticed; and that none of Smith’s tormentors (other than her mother) have ever been identified, especially given that some of them had cut off one of their middle fingers at the Black Mass. He also notes that during the alleged 81-day ritual, Michelle was confirmed to be attending school, with no remarkable absences and no apparent signs that she was being abused. Like other authors,[6][7][8] Cuhulain also noted that many of Smith’s recovered memories appear to have reflected elements in popular culture at the time (e.g.: the movie The Exorcist)

In 1979, Michelle and Pazder (both supposedly Catholics) divorced their own spouses (Pazder already had 4 children,) to marry each other. Having romantic (or just sexual) relationships with your patients is a major no-no in psychiatry because it is generally considered super-unethical to take advantage of mentally ill people in your care.

Pazder became so concerned that he went to the Vatican to inform the Pope that he’d uncovered a massive, ancient, organized, Satanic cult operating in secret throughout Canada, the US, and Europe, that incredibly, no one had ever noticed before!

The Catholic Church quietly distanced itself from Pazder.

Despite this, “Michelle Remembers” earned Pazder and Michelle $342,000, plus royalties. Pazder became a kind of celebrity expert on Satanic Ritual Abuse, appearing on TV, taking part in police seminars on ritual abuse, and eventually being consulted in over 1,000 cases of alleged Satanic Abuse. (source)

All of this played into another horrible trend in psychiatry at the time (also involving hypnosis!) Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD).

Back in 1973, just as Michelle was beginning treatment, Sybil: The True Story of a Woman Possessed by 18 Personalities was published. Sybill was originally being treated for anxiety and memory loss, but after copious quantities of drugs and hypnosis (it was the 70s, after all,) she went really crazy and began “manifesting” 18 different personalities, including two men and a French girl (despite Sybil herself having been raised in Minnesota.

Long story short, the book was nonsense and Sybil was merely an unfortunate, mentally unwell woman (possibly due to anemia,) taken advantage of by an unscrupulous psychiatrist and writer, whose book sold over 400,000 copies, launched a small industry of Sybil-related merchandise, and was made into two movies. (Michelle Remembers never got made into a movie because everyone involved would have gotten their pants sued off for libel.) He also, of course, got paid for years of psychotherapy.


Now, you might think that people would be cautious about accepting absurd claims coming from actually diagnosed, mentally-ill people receiving psychiatric treatment, but personal experience suggests that they don’t. Combine this with the feminist claim that you must always believe and support the victim and never question their claims, and you have the ingredients for thousands of destroyed lives.

But that is a story we will have to continue tomorrow.



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?

The Progressive Virus

Last week, I referenced the idea that Progressivism is a meme virus, rather than a meme mitochondria, an idea I want to explore in a bit more detail. How do we know Progressivism is viral rather than mitochondrial?

Simply put, because Progressives do not reproduce themselves. Mitochondria can only reproduce themselves by being passed on to your offspring, and thus are incentivised to maximize your reproductive success. (Or that of close relatives of yours who also carry your mitochondria, like siblings.)

By “reproduce themselves,” I mean “have enough children to keep their population from declining,” or about 2 kids per couple. (Technically, the average has to be slightly higher than 2 just because occasionally, terrible tragedies do occur, and kids die.)

This is the point in the conversation where Progressives jump in and insist that they really do reproduce themselves. Maybe not personally, of course, but they totally have some gay friends who are going to get on that IVF and have a whole bunch of children now that gay marriage is legal.

I have actually seen this argued.

Of course, any common idiot on the street has noticed by now that there’s no atheist equivalent of the Duggers, and that Mormons have a lot of kids. But if you can’t believe your own lying eyes, maybe statistics will help:

From Jayman's Blog, "Liberalism, HBD, and Solutions for the Future
From Jayman’s Blog, “Liberalism, HBD, and Solutions for the Future

Only conservatives are above replacement. Everyone else, especially the extreme liberals, is being replaced by the children of conservatives.

If you don’t believe Jayman, because he’s too conservative or liberal or whatever for your ad hom tastes, here’s data from NY Mag, which definitely takes a liberal slant:

From NY Mag, "Tell me a State's Fertility Rate, and I'll Tell You How it Voted"
From NY Mag, “Tell me a State’s Fertility Rate, and I’ll Tell You How it Voted

If you’re curious about time, it wasn’t always like this:

From Jayman, "The Liberal/Conservative Baby Gap: Time Depth"
From Jayman, “The Liberal/Conservative Baby Gap: Time Depth” Confusingly, conservatives are BLUE in this chart, and liberals are RED.

Mass media, birth control, abortion, etc., are all very recent inventions.

(In case you’re wondering, this is a world-wide phenomena:

Total Fertility Rate by Country (Wikimedia file)
Total Fertility Rate by Country (Wikimedia file)

Afghanistan (TFR around 7) is not known for its progressive views on women’s rights or homosexuality. In Nigeria (one of the purpleist on the map,) homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death. In the slightly less purple Democratic Republic of the Congo, same-sex marriage is banned by the constitution.

A few other maps for comparison:

Picture 8 Trafficking of Females Green 2

1280px-Religion_in_the_world 800px-Analfabetismo2013unesco

Sources: WomanStats Map; Wikipedia: Religiosity, Literacy Rates. H/t Suchanek.

At least currently, all of the “nice” countries that people want to live in or move to have below-replacement fertility.)

But lest I be accused of comparing apples to oranges, let’s go back to our own countries.

What happens when conservatives outbreed liberals? The simple answer is that liberals get replaced.

If you still don’t believe me, I’ll run through it step by step. (If you do believe me, you can skip this part.)

Let’s suppose we start with a town of 10 liberals and 10 conservatives. The liberals have a TFR of 1 (1 child per woman,) for 5 total children. The conservatives have a TFR of of 3, for a total of 15 children. The second generation is therefore 5:15 liberals:conservatives. In the second generation, Liberals have 2 or 3 kids (it’s hard to actually have 2.5 kids,) and conservatives have 22 or 23 kids. Fourth generation, 1 liberal kid, 33 conservatives.

And yet, a quick glance at voting trends in the US over the past 70 years indicates that the country has been moving steadily more liberal. Take, for example, the shift over the past few decades in favor of gay marriage.

Liberals remaining 50% of the electorate isn’t just an artifact of having a 2-party system; liberals have been convincing people to become more liberal. Conservatives, meanwhile, haven’t been convincing people to become more conservative.

Meme mitochondria propagate vertically–from parent to child–not horizontally, and are unattractive to people who weren’t raised with them. Meme viruses propagate horizontally–from peer to peer–and so must be attractive to others.

Progressivism is therefore propagating virally.

To be fair, ideas that began virally can become mitochondrial. Christianity in its early stages was viral, but later became mitochondrial. For an idea to become mitochondrial, it has to confer greater survival benefits on people who hold it than on people who don’t. Right now, Progressivism isn’t doing that.

The interesting question, therefore, is what Progressivism will do over the next 50-100 years. Remember that this situation of liberals not reproducing themselves is (most likely) a novel result of recent technological innovations. Will society keep moving leftward as Progressivism keeps spreading successfully to the conservatives? Or will future conservatives, having been born to the conservatives least susceptible to Progressivism in the first place, become, essentially, “immune”?

Or will the immigration of people with much higher birthrates and very different values render the whole business moot?

Mitochondrial Memes pt 4

The obvious difficulty with treating ideas like viruses is that while most viruses are detrimental to one’s health, ideas are quite useful; indeed, you won’t survive very long without ideas of some sort.

So while some ideas may be of the turn-you-into-an-infertile-spore-shedding-zombie variety, there must be some that actually promote human health and welfare.

This is where the mitochondria come in. Mitochondria, like viruses, are foreign invaders. But unlike (most) viruses, mitochondria are here for the long haul. They don’t reprogram our cells to reproduce them and infect others with out mitochondria; the only way they get to reproduce is if we reproduce. (I’ve never even heard of mitochondria getting cancer.)

It’s not exactly that viruses want to kill you; they just don’t really care whether you live or die. Cholera hijacks all of the liquid in your body to carry itself into the local water supply, to be drunk by its next victim. Your need for that water is irrelevant. (Cholera is therefore the kind of disease that can only thrive where water supplies are regularly contaminated with feces; remove the feces from the water supply, and the disease will have to find some new way to reproduce or die out.)

Some ideas will definitely kill you. The idea that lead makes a good material for dinner plates; or mercury will confer immortality; or that if you slaughter all of your livestock, god will drive the invaders from your lands and make more animals magically appear, for example. Other ideas impact your fitness indirectly, say, by decreasing the number of children you have. If you become a celibate Shaker, there aren’t going to be a whole lot of your children running around.

But other ideas are really good for you, like the germ theory of disease. The number of Mormons has grown quite a bit over the past 200 years, in part, because it convinces its adherents to have lots of children.

From an evolutionary perspective, it is easy to see that people whose ideas lead to survival are likely to out-compete people whose ideas kill them or render them sterile, which is why we now have more Mormons than Shakers, even though the reverse was once true. (Note that evolution does not care whether you think Mormonism or Shakerism is more “correct” or “true” or “pleasant.” It only matters that Mormons exist in greater numbers than Shakers.)

Ideas that succeed and reproduce by helping you survive and reproduce, therefore, I call “meme mitochondria”. Ideas that succeed and reproduce by getting you to pass them on to your friends I call “meme viruses.” (Unfortunately, “viral meme” is already taken.) Yes, I hashed this all out back in Mitochondrial Memes, but I’ve gotten complaints that the post needs updating, so here we are.

For the first 199,500 years or so of human history, the vast majority of information passed from parent–or local elder–to child. (We can also call this “vertical” meme transfer.) Hardly anyone was literate, and books were extremely expensive and rare. In this environment, memes had to be mitochondrial. There was simply very little opportunity for horizontal meme transfer. Any memes that didn’t lead to reproductive success tended to be out-competed by memes that did.

The mitochondrial meme, therefore, cares about your reproductive success (and, keeping in mind the details of family genetics, the success of relatives who share copies of your genes.) It doesn’t care anything about people who don’t share your genes–indeed, any mitochondrial meme that cared about the fates of people who don’t share your genes more than your own would be quickly replaced by ones that don’t.

Of course, some memes did manage to spread virally during this period–the major world religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam come immediately to mind. But within the past 500 years, the amount of information being horizontally transmitted has exploded.

And in the past 15 years, it has exploded again:

From Another Damn Blog, The Explosion of Digital Data
From Another Damn Blog, The Explosion of Digital Data

In other words, we are in a completely novel evolutionary meme-environment. Never in human history have we had so much horizontal data transmission; indeed, if we have not had more data transmission since 2000 than in the entire prior history of the world, we will soon.

Mitochondrial memes don’t have to sound good to outsiders; they just have to work for the people who have them.

Meme viruses have to sound good enough to people that they get picked up and passed on. Meme viruses, therefore, are a lot more likely to sound fun to people who don’t already believe in them.

Meme Mitochondria prioritize your evolutionary success, but don’t really care if you enjoy the process, and don’t care about anything else.

Meme viruses prioritize sounding good, but don’t care whether you live or die. Even a meme-virus that kills you will succeed if it gets you to spread it to others.

A meme virus does not have to kill you, of course, just as a meme mitochondria does not have to kill everyone around you. The germ theory of disease started off being spread virally, but it’s a pretty sound idea and you should wash your hands before eating.

Long-term, of course, people who are resistant to memes encouraging short-term enjoyment at the expense of long-term genetic success will outbreed people who are susceptible to such memes. Progressives, with their well below replacement fertility, will be replaced by Muslims with well above replacement fertility. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with Progressivism or Islam.

This does not necessarily mean that Progressivism will die out. As long as Progressivism can continue spreading to the children of people who believe in having lots of kids, Progressivism can continue to exist. Catholic priests don’t generally have children, either, but Catholics still manage to convince some of their members to join the priesthood. But Progressives will be replaced.

Mitochondrial Memes (Part 3: Viruses want you to spread them)

Memetics is the study of how ideas (“memes”) propagate, using the evolution and transmission of viruses as its model. Ideas, like viruses, infect their hosts (human brains), then are transmitted to new hosts (other people.) A “successful” idea is one that spreads to lots of people, just as a successful virus is one that infects lots of people.

A new environment or technology can change the way memes propagate or the types of memes that are successful.

Note that this has nothing to do with the factual content of the idea, nor does it require humans to purposefully intend to make ideas more or less successful. More successful ideas will simply spread, whether anyone wants them to or not.

For example, as Moldbug writes on the evolution of modern Progressivism from mainline Protestantism:

The combination of electoral democracy and “separation of church and state” is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity. . . .

If you have a rule that says the state cannot be taken over by a church, a constant danger in any democracy for obvious reasons, the obvious mutation to circumvent this defense is for the church to find some plausible way of denying that it’s a church. Dropping theology is a no-brainer.

and Foseti elaborates:

The series begins by treating progressivism as a sort of infection of the mind. Assume progressivism is a virus that is solely concerned with spreading itself into as many minds as possible. We see the idea’s evolution, in which it starts as a fundamentalist religious belief and ends up discarding theism so as to better propagate itself in an officially secular system of government. Shed of overt theism, Progressivism “can be propagated by American official institutions, which are constitutionally prohibited from endorsing its ancestor or competitor [ie theistic Christianity].” The devil’s greatest trick . . . and so on.

In other words, the new environment (an explicitly non-theistic political arena) favors moral ideas that are not explicitly theistic.

Viruses are interesting things. They have a lot of the characteristics of living things–like DNA–but not all of them, and so are considered non-living or semi-living things. Critically, a virus cannot reproduce on its own–it must take over a living organism and hijack its reproductive mechanisms to begin producing copies of the virus.


Viruses (and other infections,) of course, do not “want” anything, because they are not sentient. But anthropomorphization is a convenient shorthand. Viruses which are spread far and wide “succeed;” viruses which infect one person and never infect anyone else “fail.” Therefore, chances are good that any virus you catch wants to be spread.

The common cold, for example, makes you sneeze, spreading the virus from your nose and mouth to all of your friends and family.

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can only reproduce in the digestive tracts of felines but lives comfortably in just about any warm-blooded host, affects the brains of infected rats and mice to make them less fearful of cats, making them more likely to get eaten by cats, thereby transferring the parasite to its preferred home.

Horsehair worms infect crickets and then compel the crickets to drown themselves so the worms can reach water; liver flukes hitch a ride inside ants, directing them to the tops of blades of glass, where they are devoured by cows–the liver fluke’s destination. (source, with some interesting examples of pathogens that affect plant behavior.)

Immediately after infection, the flu virus makes people more sociable–and thus more likely to spread the virus to other people–before it floors you for the rest of the week. The awkwardly named IIV-6/CrIV virus is an STD that infects crickets, then makes them super-horny, spreading the STD to other crickets. Interestingly, the virus also shuts down the crickets’ immune systems, preventing them from having the “normal” cricket-responses to infection. Thus the crickets did not act or feel sick while going on their sex binge–until, you know, it turned their guts blue and killed them.

Alas, googling “Does AIDS make people horny” has returned zero hits I am actually willing to click on. But it stands to reason that STDs would increase their chances of successful transmission by making their hosts have more sex.

Memes also want you to spread them.

Any meme that can convince you to spread it–say, a meme that claims that it is immoral not to spread it–is a meme that is more likely to be successful than one that encourages you to keep your opinions to yourself.

“If you send this letter to 7 of your friends, you will have good luck! But if you break the chain, you’ll have nothing but bad luck for 7 years!”

“98% of people won’t repost this picture! Are you one of the 2% that’s brave enough to do it?”

One of the interesting things about the past 500 years or so of human history is that we have gotten better and better at spreading information. Not just chain letters and funny cat pictures, but also objectively valuable information like medical advice, scientific studies, cookbooks, and YouTube videos on how to get a small object out of your shower drain. (Get a vacuum cleaner, put a nylon stocking over the tube part, and suck it up.) Even thirty years ago, this blog would have been impossible–I would have had to content myself with slowly reading an encyclopedia, writing out my thoughts by hand, snail-mailing them to a few friends, and then waiting for a response.

If Voltaire were alive today, he’d write a blog instead of all those letters.


To be continued.

Mitochondrial Memes (Part 2: Aliens Within)

Part 1: Logos

150px-Biological_classification_L_Pengo_vflip.svgBiologically speaking, you are a member of the species Homo sapiens, (subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens.) Your genus is Homo–this includes all of our near cousins, like Homo neanderthalensis (with whom H. sapiens interbred,) Homo erectus, and the 2+million year old Homo habilis. Your family is hominidae, aka the great apes–chimps, gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, and us. We cannot interbreed with these groups. Your order is primates. The first primates probably evolved 65 million years (or more) ago; their modern members include apes, monkeys, lemurs, and lemur-like creatures like bushbabies.

Your class is mammalia–all animals with hair,[a] three middle ear bones, mammary glands, and a neocortex, at least according to Wikipedia. Most mammals have placentas and don’t lay eggs, but platypuses and echidnas have to be different. The first mammals appeared 225 million years ago.

From there, we head up to the sub-phylum Vertebrata, or all animals with backbones, then to the phylum Chordates, all animals with a nerve cord running down their back (but not necessarily any bones.) Chordates includes all birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and obscure creatures like salps, squishy, tubular creatures that look like jelly fish, and sea squirts, basically brainless tubes. Chordates appear to be over 500 million years old.

Next we have the kingdom Animalia, which includes all of the squishy things like sponges, jellyfish, octopuses, earthworms, and starfish, and crunchy things like insects, crabs, and spiders, in addition to us. The first fossil animals are 665 million years old, though older animals may simply not have been fossilized, due to being too soft. All animals are multi-cellular.

Above that, we have the domain Eukaryotes. All Eukaryotes have a nucleus and other organelles enclosed within membranes. Eukaryotes are divided into plants, animals, fungi, and protists, which are generally single-cells and include algae and the malaria parasite.

This is an animal cell, but all Eukaryotes are similar
This is an animal cell, but all Eukaryotes are similar, due to their nucleus (1) enclosed within a membrane (2) and other organelles.

There are two other major domains of life, bacteria and archaea, collectively known as prokaryotes. They have neither nuclei nor any other membrane-bound organelles. As distant cousins go, these guys are pretty distant–the common ancestors of eukaryotes, bacteria, and archaea lived over 1.6 billion years ago, possibly over 2.7 billion years ago (it’s really hard to find fossilized algae and bacteria.)


Humming away inside your H. sapiens cells, making energy for you, are mitochondria. You might have heard that your mitochondria can be used to trace your maternal family line, because they 1. Are only passed down from mother to child (eggs have mitochondria but sperm don’t;) 2. Possess their own DNA, referred to as mtDNA or mDNA.

Why do mitochondria have their own DNA?

Because they aren’t human. They aren’t animals; they aren’t even eukaryotes. They’re prokaryotes, like bacteria.

Approximately one or two billion years ago, our ancestor–probably a primitive eukaryote cell–ate a prokaryote. But this prokaryote, by a great stroke of luck, didn’t get digested. Instead it got comfy, settled in, and stuck around. Here’s a helpful graphic to explain the process in more detail:


Yes, chloroplasts are prokaryotic invaders, too.

Mitochondias’ closest living relatives are the other Rickettsiales, an order of proteobacteria, which cause a variety of diseases including Typhus and Q fever. Luckily for us, our mitochondria help keep us alive, rather than kill us.

Part 3: to be named

Mitochondrial Memes (part 1: Logos)

In the beginning, there was the Word.


On the molecular level, you are a braid in spacetime, a homeostatic system bringing in energy and nutrients, building cells, removing wastes, and up- or down-regulating processes as necessary to keep you properly warm, rested, and healthy. Homeostatic malfunction leads to chaos: death.

from Life is a Braid in Spacetime by Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen
from Life is a Braid in Spacetime by Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen

Your children are physical continuations of yourself. Your family, your community, businesses, your nation, and possibly the entire Earth itself are homeostatic. They live and they can die.

Thought is still a tricky matter. We don’t know, exactly, how we get from neurons lighting up in the brain to conscious thoughts, feelings, and desires. We know, for example, which parts of the brain control desire, but we don’t know how, exactly, you end up dreaming about a square of carefully crafted dark chocolate.

Nevertheless, we know that thoughts originate here, in our brains. Our ideas are the physical manifestations of the particular state of our neurons–a particular experience of a particular point in our journey through our spacetime braid. But unlike, say, the particular arrangement of molecules in my stomach, which I cannot convey to you, I can convey to you my ideas. And if it takes a certain configuration of active neurons in my head for me to experience a thought, then it takes another, probably similar configuration of active neurons in your head.

Conversation–understanding of each other–requires sharing each other’s brain states; our brains physically repeat each other’s patterns. Ideas create brain states; brain states create ideas.

The natural world => stimulus => neural activation => ideas => physical encoding => stimulus => neural activation => action => changes in the physical world.

Ideas are created by and create in turn the physical world.

Different physical environments favor the propagation of different kinds of ideas.


Part 2: Aliens Within