Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween Candy, the Evil Pagan Ritual

While recalling fun Halloween memories with friends, one lamented that she'd never been allowed to go trick-or-treating because her parents thought it was anti-Christian, a pagan holiday.

All I could think was, "Geez, get over it!" I mean, let your kids have a little fun! Even kids know it's just a silly leftover celebration from the old days of fall harvest rituals, a bit of fun. Why do some people have to make every trivial little thing into a huge offense?

But then I went back to my "philosophical roots," of looking at everything from the cultural-evolution point of view (memes and memetics). After heaving a heavy sigh, I realized that this sort of extreme behavior is predictable when you understand how churches evolve and compete.

Immune systems are among the most complex structures in our bodies. To a parasite or disease, our bodies are like a huge dinner table, full of ready-to-eat food, and a warm, comfortable place to live and grow. To fight these invaders, we've evolved a huge array of defenses. Our skin is tough and impervious to keep things out. Our blood is full of all sorts of antibodies and attack cells that kill anything that gets in. When we get sick, our bodies heat up with fever to "burn out" the invaders.

Cultural evolution, the way that ideas compete with each other, change, and are propagated across society and down through time, is remarkably parallel to biological evolution. So, it's not surprising to find that memeplexes (collections of related ideas, such as religion) have evolved immune systems too.

Consider, for example, the idea that the Bible is inerrant, the perfect word of God in every respect. It's a widely held believe these days, but it wasn't always so. In fact, for most of Judeo-Christian history, most people couldn't even read, and Catholic mass was even conducted in Latin, so the Bible's many contradictions weren't apparent to most people. People didn't think much about whether the Bible was correct in every detail.

Modern literacy, and widespread availability of Bibles in the last few hundred years, has changed all of that: the many inconsistencies in the Bible are there for everyone to see.

This caused a huge problem for Christian leaders. If they admit, for example, that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection as told in the four gospels doesn't add up, that there must be errors somewhere, then where does it stop? It's the classic slippery slope: Either it's God's word, or else you can start questioning everything.

To solve this dilemma, the Christianity memeplex evolved and mutated a new set of ideas: The Bible is inerrant in every respect. All of those glaring inconsistencies can be explained by the fact that we're not as smart as God and just don't understand God's mysterious ways. Or something.

(This, and many other immunity memes, are discussed at length in my book, The Religion Virus.)

Religions have a fundamental flaw: All of them claim to be have the truth, but there is no scientific test to see which is right. Unlike scientific theories, it's impossible to use any rational method to distinguish one religion from another and say conclusively which one is right. Instead, religions have developed the "I'm right, you're going to Hell," meme, which basically avoids the question by asserting loudly that horrible consequences will befall those who follow other religions.

And this leads us back to Halloween. Christianity has one of the strongest immune systems ever developed, and it's particularly damning of pagan religions. Those who won't let their kids go out trick-or-treating are just victims of the age-old "I'm right, you're going to Hell" meme, a meme that survives because it's been tremendously useful in the "survival of the fittest" battle of religion-against-religion down through the centuries.


  1. My mother didn't let me participate in Halloween either, for those very same reasons. She didn't let that stop her from telling us kids all about what fun she'd have Trick-or-Treating, and how she'd bring back a pillow case full of candy. I realize that she didn't intend to send us the message that "your happiness isn't important to me", but that's what I heard year after year. This Saturday I'm taking my son Trick-or-Treating for what will be my first time as well. I realize Halloween is just another memeplex, but at least this is the fun one!

  2. An interesting take on the rejection of Halloween. Very astute. Religions seem to be some of the most highly developed of all memeplexes.


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