Most of the websites I used as examples when this sermon was delivered have all been taken down (with the notable exception of "Concerned Women for America"). The descriptions I used might assist in an internet archive search for what were very "colorful" tools of propaganda.
Why aren't you like me? What makes you think you have an answer that hasn't been already given to the most serious questions of life? Why do you insist of striking out on your own path? Why don't you think like other people? What's wrong with the religion you were brought up in? How come you have to be different? 10,000 people can't all be wrong, can they? What makes you think you're so special?
How many of you have heard these questions in you life? How many of you just had a gut reaction to some of these questions? How many of you, like me, have been hurt by people asking these questions of you? Why do you react so powerfully to these questions?
The answer might be found in a simple, but quite powerful concept called memes. Richard Dawkins, who coined the word in his book The Selfish Gene defines the meme as simply a unit of intellectual or cultural information that survives long enough to be recognized as such, and which can pass from mind to mind. Dawkins wrote:
" Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leading from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of people all over the world."
So, how do memes influence the way behave? To put it simply, they have a way of turning off our reasoning. They are a kind of shorthand to thinking. We automatically respond to the memes planted in us about every facet of our lives first, reactively, and unconsciously, before we separate our own thought processes from that of others. That is, if we even get that far.
Scientologists use a term that is similar to "memes", but slightly different. They define the triggering mechanism for memes as "engrams". An engram is defined as "a definite and permanent trace left by a stimulus on the protoplasm of a tissue. It is considered as a unit group of stimuli impinged solely on the cellular being". L. Ron Hubbard, the originator of the term "engram" says that engrams are only recorded during periods of physical or emotional suffering. During those periods the "analytical mind" shuts off and the reactive mind is turned on. Hubbard claimed that, with the help of some electronic gizmos and trained Dianetics practitioners, most of us can go back to the very moment when these engrams were implanted in us. When we do so and confront them with our analytical minds we can rid ourselves of them. We then can become "clear" of such hindrance with practice.
Most of us realize that when we first heard the questions I posed at the beginning, we were being challenged in a way that was not too pleasant. The challenger most often ask the questions, then implant their memes as the answer. For example, your challenger would ask "What's wrong with the religion you were brought up in?", then plant the meme "Catholicism was good enough for your parents and your grand parents, so it's good enough for you!". Here's another example. Question: "What makes you think you have an answer that hasn't been already given to the most serious questions of life?" Planting of the meme: "You're not smart enough, or spiritual enough to answer those questions for yourself. You'll get it wrong. Then you'll go to hell!"
In my opinion, there is a two-step process that causes the subconscious blocks we experience. The first step is the emotional suffering, the engram or challenge, that opens us up to the negative idea. The second step is the implantation of the meme, the "unit of intellectual or cultural information" by the challenger. The interesting thing is that you are infected by the challenger with the meme, and that person is unconscious of the act. In fact, if you were to examine the challenger in a way that might wake up their analytical mind, they might themselves agree with you that what they just passed along to you really has no positive value, or even relevance in reality.
Yet we continually fall victim to the memes implanted in us. In fact, those memes usurp the capacity to reason over time. They actually become our reality because they masquerade as fact. These memes concerning religion is the subject of my talk to today, which I have entitled "Fear and Loathing".
Here's the archetypal religious meme, I'm sure we're all familiar with: "If you don't believe in my religion, you are doomed to eternal hell. Relationships with people who don't believe are to be avoided because they will tempt, and then infect you with their falseness". Do you see the awesome beauty of such a meme? They've got you coming and going! On a deep level you are afraid you might be in error, which will make you vulnerable to, let's face it, death — the biggest bogey man of them all. Not only will you face death, but eternal suffering while you're dead for making the wrong choice. So that's the "fear" part. Now, of course, comes the "loathing". You will naturally loath anyone who is not on the right path, and who by their very existence, might cause you to stray. This is nothing to play with. We're talking about your eternal soul here!
The fascinating thing is all this takes place on a deep psychological level. We are all struggling with the many memes that float around our brains that provide us with Lilly pads of comfort from the rigors of constant analytical thought. It is sometimes nice to check your brain in at the door and luxuriate in the comfort of conformity.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom I regard to be the patron saint of Unitarianism, had some very appropriate things to say in his "Self Reliance" essay about conformity, as regards to religion. He wrote:
"A man must consider what a blindman's-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, — the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion."
We, who are assembled here today, who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists, are here primarily because we dare to be non-conformists in our thinking. We are infected with the anti-virus of reason, and its evil twin sister, doubt.
I am personally, an ardent student of memes, and the effect they have on our society. I learned when I was very young what it is like to be a member of a class of people towards whom tremendous negative memes were directed. Those memes shaped the earliest impressions of my own self-image. Imagine what it's like to fight off stereotypes of Aunt Jemima, Step and Fetch It, Al Jolson, little black Sambo, and Uncle Remus ... all before you can get started on your own stuff as a child! Memes and I have been aquatinted for a very long time.
Actually, the impetus for this sermon had its roots in news from nearly five years ago. I was fascinated at how USANext, the group of people behind the highly effective "Swift Boat" negative attack ads that ran against John Kerry in the 2004 election, were able to brand the AARP as an organization of liberal, gay-loving, anti-family, influence peddling, anti-Americans who are hell-bent on destroying America. How, one asks, can the AARP be impugned by such obvious hyperbole? Well, the answer is many-fold. Never mind the fact that they ran afoul of George W. Bush's campaign against the evils of Social Security as it is today. The reason why that group is gaining traction is because of their superior use of meme-friendly symbology.
What do I mean by this? Well back in 2005 you could take a look at the USANext website and compare it with AARP's. The USANext website had all manners of American flags, Norman Rockwell paintings, and multiracial harmony going on. Their motto was... "Building a Legacy of Freedom for America's Families". They even had, right on the first page calls to action like "National Review Editor Says 'Quit the AARP' ", and the wonderful "L" word; "Liberals Level Full-Scale Assault at USA Next". How cool is that? Even now, you can compare that with AARP's website. There's not one flag on it, except for the lame little swizzle in the AARP logo. Those poor people are in serious need of meme therapy. Their website was pathetic. There was a picture of an elderly African American featured right next to the heading which reads "Find a Job: AARP Featured Employers. We have identified employers who value older workers". Take a look at this terrible thing and learn the gut-shaking, awful truth. It simply focuses on subjects important to retired people! The banner text for AARP is "The power to make it better". How unpunchy! The harshest thing they can say is "Social Security: Strengthen it. Don't Destroy It", then they spend their precious web space on mamby pamby stuff like travel and leisure, Care and Family, choosing your medications, and — the ultimate insult — "AARP en español"!
On the other hand, USANext went for the jugular with its now infamous attack ads, including the one shown here called “The Real AARP Agenda”. Not only did they attack the AARP on social security, but they nailed them on the agenda to replace the US military with gay men. Amazing! Well, check this out. Any questions? I mean aside from the fact that this image makes absolutely no sense. USANext closed up shop after spending more than $27M on websites and mailers like this. The latest attack, of course, is on the health care issue. I found this very strange image on a conservative website devoted to the overthrow of the communistic health care reforms that are being shoved down our backs. Here, an AARP dagger is thrust into the back of a very surprised grandmotherly type.
Here's the strangest thing to me ... groups representing "liberal" or middle-of-the-road groups consistently do not use the same symbology! We all know why. It's because we, like those poor AARP idiots, haven't figured out that manipulating people is at least as important as educating them. Okay, you might say, liberals can play that game. I looked up the website for the well-known liberal group People for the American Way. Pretty nice, huh? They've got the red, white, and blue thing going — sort of— and they've even managed to put a star, slightly reminiscent of the American flag, in their logo. You might be tempted to give them good marks until you look at one of the many websites devoted to countering them. This group is called "Freedom 21.org" Take a good look that their website! Now that's a website! They've got everything covered!
Bypass the analytical brain and go straight for the hypothalamus! That's the secret to effectively influencing people and getting them to both fear and loathe their opponents. If you think this kind of thing happens only in the realm of politics, then think again. Let's take a look at some other religious and political-religious websites I downloaded. Notice the use of the flag and other symbology designed to get right past your analytical mind. What's the message in all these sites? If you're not with our way of thinking you're anti-American. What other message is there? Notice the effect is to draw you in immediately to their point of view because you identify so strongly with the flag that your subconscious brain can't imagine any other reason to disagree with the entirety of the message. Why else would a religious website use a flag and the symbology of American nationalism?
Here's the website for an organization called "Concerned Women for America". There motto is "Walk with us in the steps of Jesus ...", presumably just in case you weren't doing so already. I have examples of some others. I won't comment too much on them, but you might be beginning to get the point here. Can you imagine a UU site that would look anything like what you're seeing?
We are in the middle of an obvious cultural war. The sad thing is, most of us don't even anything about the war. I would submit to you that great social upheavals are a fact of human life. Most of these upheavals result in the deaths of those who do not conform to the great waves that engulf them. How's that for fear? I'm certain some of you were willing just now to debate the issue with me. That's good. Your UU instincts are alive and well.
The point I'm trying to make is that the reason you're here today is precisely why these website images are so disturbing to you. You are a person who is comfortable with being a non-conformist. You like to think for yourself and you value the free exchange of ideas, religious, political, or otherwise. You wish to share the best of your culture with all people. You value the concept of truly including all people in your workplace and your homes, instead of exploiting them to maintain some false sense of class. For whatever, misguided reasons, we seem unable to clothe ourselves in a flag or plant a cross on our heads to convince others that our way of thinking is right. We won't say "those people are wrong and we are right.", even if it is to your advantage to do so. We UUs are a bunch of people I have likened to the "herding of cats".
God will bless us. The world has always been populated by those who march to the beat of a different drummer. Those of us who have stood out on the lonely branches against racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and a host of other non-to-popular social and religious causes, have had those branches cut out from under us. But we have planted seeds of discontent. We nurture saplings of righteousness because we do so from the context of a powerful truth ... that we are all human beings in a great quest towards our evolving consciousness, and we must do so together, as brothers and sisters.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, talked about people like us in his 1842 lecture entitled "The Transcendentalist":
"The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own.... "
So, my brothers and sisters in this strange little community of misfits, I pledge to you my continued support and solidarity. I urge each of you to look inside yourself to remove all vestiges of fear or loathing. Any fear that stems from a religious source cannot stand in the light of religious liberty. Any loathing of your fellow man because of their beliefs is not worthy of your noble mantle.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!