Sticky Theology, Part 1: Emotional Selection

In thinking through the comments to my last post, I'd like to start a little series reflecting on the nature and dynamics of folk theology.

I think most people are aware of Richard Dawkins's idea of a meme. Dawkins proposed the idea in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene. A meme is a unit, a piece, of cultural information that can get transmitted or imitated in a population. Think of a good idea (like making a wheel), a cultural trend (like wearing wedding rings), or a juicy piece of gossip. As memes, these cultural replicators spread through populations.

Since 1976, the meme idea has been a fruitful way of looking at cultural phenomena. I'd like to use the idea to think about folk theology.

For a meme to "spread" it needs a characteristic that is the analog to virulence or contagiousness. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell calls this memetic characteristic "stickiness." That is, once spoken, read, or observed the meme has to "stick" in the mind of a person. And more, the meme must be deemed worthy of transmission or imitation. Think of a very bad joke or idea. These memes are not very "sticky" and thus die the death of poor memes: They are forgotten.

Here is my point. If we think of theology as a meme then the most successful folk theologies will be those that "stick." Sticky theology will be the dominant theology.

Well, what makes theology, or any meme for that matter, "sticky"?

An interesting article by Heath, Bell, and Steinberg published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology entitled Emotional Selection in Memes: The Case of Urban Legends suggests that emotional selection may be involved in meme propagation. Heath, Bell, and Steinberg define emotional selection as the tendency of memes to be "selected" (i.e., remembered and transmitted) because they "evoke an emotional reaction that is shared across people." The point is that if a meme can create a strong emotional response it is more likely to be remembered and shared. Better still, if the meme elicits a strong shared emotional response then it is even more effective.

I think all this has application for folk theology. That is, we may ask "Why are very poor theological ideas ascendant in our churches?" One answer is that these theological formulations, although poor on theological grounds, are effective on emotional grounds. That is, folk theology has gone through generations of emotional selection where the configurations that are the most emotionally evocative tend to get remembered and repeated.

Interestingly, Dawkins himself recognized this dynamic. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins says this about some religious memes:

“…an aspect of doctrine that has been very effective in enforcing religious observance is the threat of hell fire. Many children and even some adults believe that they will suffer ghastly torment after death if they do not obey the priestly rules. This is a particularly nasty piece of persuasion, causing great psychological anguish throughout the middle ages and even today. But it is highly effective…The idea of hell fire is, quite simply, self-perpetuating, because of its own deep psychological impact. It has become linked with the god meme because the two reinforce each other, and assist each other’s survival in the meme pool.” pp. 197,198

If we put issues of hell to the side for a moment, we can see Dawkins's point: Some theological ideas stick with you for non-theological reasons. As we see with Dawkins's example, some theological ideas might propagate for purely emotional reasons. Sticky theology is emotional theology.

Next Post: Part 2

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9 thoughts on “Sticky Theology, Part 1: Emotional Selection”

  1. Hey Richard

    Interesting post... I agree that folk theological systems are emotionally influenced by these "sticky" memes. So, the descriptive understanding I completely buy... however, I would love to hear your thoughts on the normative piece.

    In other words, given that we approach the world with certain theological "taboos" that influence behavior, how do we then know:
    1) which taboos to break free of
    2) how we shape our taboos or implicit attitudes.

    Ill give you an example, a collegue and I are current working on a study that looks at implicit influence of racial attitudes on a hiring decision. We examine whether these attitudes shape our behavior, our ability to disregard false information on certain candidates, and how our tendency to control prejudice moderate this "tendency." What we find essentially, without going into too many details, is that the implicit bias are exceptionally hard to control in most situations (given some interesting exceptions) despite explicit systems that tell them these implicit biases are unfair (i.e. people who come across very high in tendency to control prejudice).

    Now, memes are not the exact same as implicit biases, but I would suggest in many ways they act through the same mechanism. Thus, if at the "meme" level, I think God punishes me for all my sins and has incredible anger at certain behavior (i.e. a person who fears having doubts), but at the more explicit deliberative level I want to say that these actions are ok, there will still be manifested ambivalence. Petty wrote an interesting paper back in 2006 on implicit explicit ambivalence by the way (his PAST model).

    So, to pull together these disparate thoughts, our implicit attitudes or beliefs are shaped by these sticky theological memes, which may be in contrast to our explicit theological systems, resulting in attitude ambivalence. The questions is 1) how do we know which memes to shed, and 2) how does the shadow of influence of these memes disappear?


  2. Hi Richard,

    For an extremely nice (and entertaining) discussion of what makes for sticky messages, see Chip Heath & Dan Heath's excellent book, Made to Stick. They say that sticky messages are those that are simple, unexpected, concrete, emotional stories.

    Peace be with you,

  3. So if there is bad theology that can be attributed thriving because of emotional selection, would it be necessary for any new theology replacing the old to also survive this emotional selection? In other words, is emotional selection necessary for the survival of theology?

  4. Richard, others,

    You might want to check out this url which focusses on Dawkins:


    George C.

    P.S. Is memeing someone like mooning them? And if so, can a stick meme moon anyone?

  5. Richard,

    Pleasing explain how pleasing or displeasing God must go in light of 1 Peter 1:15, 16 But nou you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you to be his children is holy. For He Himself has said "you must be holy because I am holy."

    or in light of Philipians 2:5 "Your attitude should be the same Christ Jesus had."

    or Romans 12:2 Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will know what God wants you to do and you will know how good and pleasing and perfect his will really is.


  6. Peter,
    A part of me wants to say that our psychological set-up is glitchy and will remain glitchy. That is, the implicit and explicit cognitive systems will probably always clash. Further, the implicit ideas will always be acquired in an "easier" fashion where the explicit will always be more effortful (e.g., education). For example, learning to speak is implicit, automatic, and instinctive. Learning to read or write takes years of formal educational grind. Plus, that grind reveals issues such as dyslexia. To stay with this metaphor, there may be theological dyslexics out there. That is, no matter how much we train to instill good theological habits, some people just can't pick them up. They will default to the implicit theology.

    So, getting back to your issue, this does pose us with a problem. When the two theological systems disagree how should be proceed? How do we decide what is best?

    The issue isn't so easy to resolve. Academic theology, although beautiful and sophisticated, can be overly abstract and not very practical. Ivory tower stuff. The folk theology, although perhaps simplistic, is very emotional and practical. Which means it is effective, as Pastor Bob pointed out in my last post, in shaping the behavior of people.

    My feeling is that the best way to proceed is to begin to intentionally raise the level of theological conversation in the church while dealing, on a case by case basis, with the folk theology when it becomes a problem for a person or faith group. I think that is a good middle way.

    I don't know if I've answered you question. I've kind of rambled. But what I do what to say is that your research on racism is fascinating!

    Thanks for the book rec. I had not know of it.

    I think the implication is that an emotionally charged theology is always going to be around. It sets up the theological ecosystem as it were. A "competing" theology will have two choices: 1.) Be equally emotional and, thus, spread easily in a memetic way, or 2.) Be systematically transmitted (e.g., catechesis).

  7. Hi Richard-
    I recently stumbled across your blog and am enjoying it very much. I know this is an old post -- I am presuming you will be beeped at or something to let you know of this reply (but we'll see!...)

    Anyway, I had some quick thoughts on this topic. BTW, I am a psychiatrist, I also live in Texas, and I share with you an interest in the intersection of psychology and religion. I have an interest in psychotherapy (and psychodynamic concepts in particular) and have found these concepts often useful in trying to understand my own religious experience. Religiously, I am a former fundamentalist-turned-agnostic-leaning-atheist, and it has taken me a rather longish time to extricate myself fully from that particular web of belief.

    My idea is similar to the meme idea but includes (as that concept ought to if it is to become really useful) some ideas about *how* this sort of emotional propagation takes place, at least in fundamentalist and very conservative religion. My central thesis is that many of the core teachings of conservative Christianity self-propagate because they exacerbate basic emotional struggles most people have, which the religious system can then be called on to solve.

    Many fundamentalist teachings about sin, for example, I suggest serve to induce a sense of helplessness by broadening and deepening one's intrinsic sense of "badness", and then amplifying its importance. For example, teaching that certain thoughts and emotions themselves (not just behaviors) are sin, teaching that even one sin is enough for eternal damnation, teaching that any act of self-will is sin. Since no one can consistently avoid contact with given thoughts or avoid given emotions (as guys like Steven Hayes have shown), no one can avoid needing the solution fundamentalism offers.

    According to object relations child development models, children have a very hard time drawing a distinction between what they feel and what they are. Their emotions seem to have a primitive, overwhelming quality and thus, for them, to *feel* bad is (for the moment, anyway) to *be* bad. Fundamentalism tries to obliterate that distinction, and thus collapse the distance adults have from their emotions, that allows one to say, e.g., “I may feel very guilty right now, but that is not all that I am”.

    Anyway, that’s the basic idea. If your interest is piqued and you want to see a full-dress presentation of this argument, I contribute to a blog called, for former fundamentalists. Here is the article itself:

    Anyway, thanks again for your blog – I really enjoy it and am mulling over some of your ideas.

  8. just if you guys are interested, and not to knock your stuff here, but the concept of memes has pretty much been scientifically debunked, despite the fact that dennett and dawkins try to cling to the notion has hard and as dogmatically as they can

    just think about it this way: how can we even begin to cleave culture along discrete lines in the way we identified in genetic studies? plus, culture carries no replicator material in the way that our cells use dna.

    dawkins just likes the idea cause it gives him some easy propaganda to knock religion as a bad mind virus.

  9. "the concept of memes has pretty much been scientifically debunked"

    [citation needed]

    To answer your points:
    The cleaver is the emotional response in humans, and the replicators is anybody who forwards interesting emails, repeats gossip to more than one person, and missionaries or anybody who tries to convert others to what they believe. These replicators are prevalent all throughout the course of human history, and always will be, because the replicators have a need to share their thoughts with the world at large (read: exactly what I'm doing now).

    Now, if you take a bunch of random ideas and have these replicators start telling people about them, the ideas that have the most "emotional content" will be the ideas that take root and thrive in people's minds. Some of those people will be so emotionally attached to the idea that they will replicate the idea themselves, by talking to their friends in real life or on the internet (like people on random blogs), or even raising their children to behave and believe in the same way.

    By having the more emotional ideas resonate with a populace (and replicate) and others not resonate, the most emotionally engaging ideas will proliferate and spread - much like a virus in a body without other viruses. Once an idea has hit a critical mass of people, it spreads through the network effect, or the idea that the most popular ideas/websites will attract more visitors than other ideas/websites, and spread/grow faster (like Facebook).

    Now, there are plenty of ideas that should to be accepted by everybody (only very uninteresting stuff, like the idea that the Earth is a sphere, not a finite plane, or the idea that gravity pulls things down), but there are also plenty of ideas that need to be meditated on, like the idea that a single omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent supernatural entity loves each of us individually. Ideas that manifest themselves as "religious" ideas don't necessarily have a rational basis, and so must be spread through emotional attachment.

    So, once you have a large group of believers of an idea ostracizing anybody else in a society that openly doesn't believe the same idea, you generate a backlash. This is where Richard Dawkins comes into the picture, as most atheists nowadays view religion as a loss of rationality. If society weren't as advanced, these irrational purists would eventually be naturally selected out of genetic replication (read: die before they can have kids), just like the preacher was bitten by the rattlesnake and died. Atheists don't see a difference between the most extreme religious ideas and the most moderate religious ideas because they are both intrinsically based on believing irrational ideas, which is clearly not beneficial in extreme cases, and so probably isn't beneficial in moderate cases.

    That's at least my understanding of Dawkins' book, feel free to disagree.

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