Cathedrals, Memes, Advertising, God and Liverpool

by Sam Collett
During a session with some of our third year students, Sam's old dissertation came out as a key reference source. So we thought we would dig this beast out of the archives...
Dec 1, 2020

Liverpool – A city where rival religions fight it out on the skyline. This is the cathedral’s battle for supremecy.

The Anglicans of Liverpool started building one of the largest Cathedrals in Europe, designed by Gilbert Scott. They wanted to plant their identity on the mainly catholic population.

The Catholics, seeing this huge structure rising before them, commissioned Edwin Luytens to build an even larger Romanesque Cathedral to rival the gothic splendour of the Angilcan cathedral. 

The Catholic cathedral was so great that St. Peters Rome would have fitted beneath the main Dome, dwarfing the Anglican sitting at the end of Hope St.

But they ran out of money and only the crypt was ever built. On this base was built the cheaper, but striking modernist “Paddy’s Wigwam”.

This is the story of the Cathedrals of Liverpool, and thus we can compare the ‘Aesthetics’of two religious buildings with the aid of the extended phenotype, or meme…

Comparing Liverpool's Cathedrals with the aid of the Extended Phenotype

The story of Liverpool's fighting Cathedrals

This is Sam’s old dissertation from 1997. It has been on the web lurking since then, but we gave it a quick visual upgrade. For a design degree dissertation, it is pretty wide-ranging and not a little mad. The comparison of two cathedrals, facing each other at either end of Hope Street in Liverpool, as if they were advertisements for their own respective faith. It’s quite a ride so you will need, at the very least, a hot drink and a comfy seat.

Comparing Liverpool’s Cathedrals with the aid of the Extended Phenotype


I) Introduction

This dissertation introduces Richard Dawkins’ theories to explain the purpose of Cathedrals in the context of the city. It uses Liverpool’s Cathedrals (the Anglican Cathedral and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King) as an example of the concepts. It attempts to compare the two buildings, in relation to this theory, and find which one is ‘best suited’ to the task it is set to do. This, of course, is no easy task, and is one full of pitfalls. Therefore as a guide I have introduced the ideas of competition in the form of advertising and thence Dawkins’ theories of the extended phenotype. These areas are used as thought tools to help in the investigation. The dissertation tries to alter the way in which Cathedrals are seen and assessed by examining the purpose of these buildings.

I will be examining the ‘bewilderment factor’ that churches and Cathedrals play on to unnerve us as we enter them. This can be defined as the use of size, grandeur and imagination that evokes the idea of a spiritual place. When we see a Cathedral on the skyline we realise that the outward signs of Cathedrals are also designed to have a common identity. We recognise a Cathedral for what it is and we are beckoned to realise its place within the community. If we consider Liverpool’s Cathedrals, the command they have over the town is echoed in the placement of the buildings and the dominance of the skyline. The placing of Cathedrals at the centre of things in this way, is a symbol of power and, more importantly, the defence of this power.

We can conceivably say that Cathedrals can be considered as advertisements of their Religion, of the builder’s faith in that Religion, and of the city in which it sits. If we make this assumption, then it is conceivable that the common identity displayed by the buildings could be considered as part of the advertisement.

When considering the ideas of advertising, we can imply the ideas of competition between Religions, and therefore between Cathedrals, and this leads me on to my Replicator Theory. I have been influenced by the ideas of Richard Dawkins’ theories on extended phenotypes and Marshall McLuhans’ on the extensions of man. Both of these imply that we, as humans, create extensions of ourselves (or phenotypes) that are able to evolve separately from ourselves. Dawkins’ ideas on human culture especially interested me, and it led me to formulate my own interpretation of his idea. These additions to Richard Dawkins’ theory of the extended phenotype are, briefly:

  • That Religion is an idea that is capable of replicating itself – ensuring the ?survival of the ideas [meme].

  • It is able to do this with the aid of artefacts – objects, or systems of objects ?that advertise the idea [replicators].

  • The artefacts that the idea uses can conceivably tell us about the condition of ?the idea at the time, just as phenotypes may tell us about the state of ?evolution of a species.

  • Cathedrals are one of the chief replicators, or methods of upholding the tradition, for the Christian Religion.

The above theory states that Religion is an idea capable of its own replication, and that Cathedrals are just one of the system of artefacts that Religion uses to prolong belief among the people. These artefacts are used as advertisements for the idea, and enable it to be transferred from generation to generation.

Section 2 deals specifically with the problems of considering Liverpool’s Cathedrals as replicators of their Religions (Church of England and Roman Catholic). If we presume that Religion could be considered as a meme (an idea capable of its own replication), then this implies the idea of competition in the form of the Darwinian idea of ‘Fitness’. Richard Dawkins states that ideas will become outdated, unless the system of replicators is advanced enough for the idea to survive independently. My investigation rests on these principles of pseudo-competition among the Cathedrals. Which Cathedral is more capable of upholding the ideas of its builders?

Section 3 attempts to compare the Cathedrals in terms of this Darwinian fitness, and in terms of their aesthetics. Firstly, the situation of Liverpool and some of its history is examined in relation to the building of the two Cathedrals. Then, definitions and problems with dealing with aesthetics as a means of comparison are linked with the difficulty in defining a proper value for success. Indeed, once we introduce the concepts of competition and comparison, it automatically follows that there should be a ‘winner’, or one that fits the bill better. I argue that this should not necessarily be the case, or if it is, then it is impossible to make an informed decision on personally enforced values. I then evaluate both my theories, and the way I go about applying them to the Cathedrals of Liverpool.

1) The extended phenotype related to Cathedrals.

In the Extended Phenotype (1982), Richard Dawkins outlines his theory that genes are the unit of replication, and therefore implies the obliteration of the individual as the unit of natural selection. The gene is the replicator, and therefore of importance, while the body it resides in is merely the vehicle. The phenotypes of the gene are in many ways more important to study than the actual vehicle (the organism or group of organisms). In other words, the creations of the organism can tell us about the state of evolution of the organism itself.

Phenotype – The manifested attributes of an organism, the joint product of its genes and their environment during ontogeny [development]. A gene may be said to have phenotypic expression in, say, eye colour. . . . The concept of phenotype is extended to include functionally important consequences of gene differences, outside the bodies in which the gene sits. (Dawkins, 1982, p292).

‘Not only does the body of an organism march to the orders of its genes, but so do the artefacts the organism builds or uses. (In this sense, an egg uses both a chicken and a nest to make another egg, and so the nest, too, is an evolutionary extension of the egg.) (Schrage, 1995, p54).

Dawkins proposed that genes themselves are expressions of a particularly elegant code manipulating the world to its own reproductive end. He extended these notions into culture and described ideas as competing, self-replicating entities he called memes. (Schrage, 1995, p54).

Meme – A unit of cultural inheritance, hypothesised as analogous to the particulate gene, and as naturally selected by virtue of its ‘phenotypic’ consequences on its own survival and replication in the cultural environment. (Dawkins, 1982, p290).

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 leaping 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….. If it catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.(Dawkins, 1979/89, p192)

A meme is an extension of the gene, whereby, according to Richard Dawkins, the meme is an object or an idea which is able to replicate itself. We can see that our artefacts and our ideas change with us. Once the birth of an idea has taken place, the population that it has influenced will produce artefacts to glorify that idea. This, in turn, strengthens the idea, by influencing more of the available population. Therefore a kind of inertia will develop.

For example; consider a primeval society where people make their dwellings from grass. Now imagine someone builds a house made out of mud. The meme is defined as the idea for the design of the house. Once built, the mud house will act as a replicator for the meme because other people will see it and copy it. Therefore, the meme (or idea) is now inside their heads, and will passed on to others by the building of other mud houses. (A meme does not exist apart from as an idea in an organism’s head). Going back to the chicken and the egg (and the nest), the nest is the replicator, whilst the design of the nest is the meme.

When you look at cultural evolution from the memetic perspective you appreciate that the persistence of an idea in our culture may not be dependent on its value to us, because it may have its own independent way of encourageing its replication. The memes that survive are the ones that make lots of copies; they may not necessarily be good for us. (Richard Dawkins quoted by Schrage, 1995, p54).

I was impressed with Dawkins’ idea that our artefacts change with us, as well as the idea of the meme; an idea that is able to replicate itself. At the time I was reading many books on mythology, which were about the importance of a myth to put a civilisation in context. I was also interested in the evolution of a Religion and, at that time, I saw Religion as Marx did – ‘The opium of the people’. Richard Dawkins is an evangelist of atheism. His world contains no God, and no meaning to life; we are merely vehicles for our genes to survive. Dawkins is particularly impatient with those who continue to believe in an omnipotent and loving God. Dawkins’ quote (above) made me realise certain things about the way in which Religions function, and therefore evolve by the use of religious artefacts.

Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a God that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival; value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies… These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.(Dawkins, 1979/89, p192)

Dawkins states the psychological appeal of the idea. Defined as Religion’s promises of the ‘extended arms’ of myth, and the flip-side of ‘hell-fire’, or the consequences of this life on the next. These simple ideas not only create stability, and a sense of history and belonging, but the idea of hell is a particular strong and emotive reason for not going against accepted ideas. It is fairly easy to see how Dawkins’ ideas could be manifested. However, I am more interested in the idea of artefacts that help in the propagation of the Religious meme. The concept that a meme could survive if it had the best replicators. I deduced that if we consider Religion as a meme, then we could identify the artefacts associated with that Religion, and therefore define the objects responsible for replicating the meme that is Religion. Moreover, according to Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype (1982), the condition of these replicators could tell us something about the state of the meme (or Religion).

If we presume that Religion is a meme, then it follows that it will influence the population to create artefacts. These will include works of art, texts, and structures. The effect of the artefacts would be to influence the population, including those who do not believe in the Religion. An inertia of beliefs will follow and the meme that is Religion will have been able to replicate itself throughout the population. More artefacts (e. g. churches) will be produced by the population, and these will become more elabourate as time goes by. If we consider Protestant worship in this country, then Cathedrals and Churches would be the most influential ‘advertisement’ for the meme.

The building of a structure will undoubtedly prolong the use of an idea, the greater the building the better. If the population is able to do so, they will create lasting structures that ensure the knowledge and tradition of their church will be upheld. Cathedrals are an ideal example of memetic artefacts which have succeeded in the replication of Christian Religion for centuries. It follows from our hypothetical model that the Religion with the best set of artefacts is the one that will survive; this is the crux of my investigation and implies that the theories of advertising and competition may be introduced.


Cathedrals are signs of the city in which they occupy, of their function, and of their religious creed. Liverpool’s Cathedrals compete for the identity of the city (the one postcard image that is remembered as the symbol of Liverpool), and they compete because they are of a different Religion. The Cathedrals are ‘fighting’ for the command of the city on different levels (religious, aesthetic, symbolically). This concept of competition between two rival Religions is one that fits in with my interpretation of Richard Dawkins’ theory of the extended phenotype – the concept of rival ideas ‘outdoing’ each other by use of their ‘replicators’, as well as the notion that Cathedrals are advertisements of the ideas of its builders’.

By definition, the outward structure of a Cathedral is an advertisement of its Religion. Every city (also by definition) has its own distinctive Cathedral, which is usually the most notable ‘icon’ of the town. Thus, the Cathedral may become the symbol for the city. They give identity to the city, a symbol of power, faith and wealth of the community. In addition to this, Cathedrals have a common visual identity that is separate from the function of the building. Cathedrals are, in essence, the permanent billboards of our cityscapes. A signifier of not only their function, and respective religious creed, but of their city.

As advertisements Cathedrals could not be more overwhelming. Although largely defined by the function, there is an accepted ‘aesthetic’ for church and Cathedral design; everyone not only has a preconceived idea of what a Cathedral should look like, but also recognises a place of worship as such. It is this common identity that makes the ‘Cathedral aesthetic’ so successful. By this I mean the judgements made by an individual based upon their cultural viewpoint.

If we consider the Cathedrals of Liverpool, despite the radical differences in design and structure, there are some underlying aesthetics that are additional to the function of the parts of the building. The Tower (or Spire) is one such theme: Both the Lantern of the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King and the Vestey Tower of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral are visual in conception. Both Towers are beacons that can be seen across the city and beyond. Both advertise their respective faiths, and stand in competition with each other, even if only because of their locations.

Yet there is no real need for the towers to be there, or to be on such a scale. The addition of towers and spires to churches seems merely of historical requirement, and not because of a specific function. We can see that this is a prime example of an effective advertisement: By building upwards towers identify the building as a church, and impress this identity over its catchment. The aim of adverts is to stand out from others: Churches and Cathedrals are competing with other buildings for recognition; trying to spread their builder’s faith across the city.

Cathedrals ‘were designed to shock, to lift the mortal from the everyday world of low horizons and small enclosed spaces onto the supernatural plain of an omnipotent God who suspended at will the laws of nature and whose power was literally terrifying. A Cathedral then, involved an element of showmanship, of conjuring and engineering razzmatazz which was far removed from a rational calculation of ends to a means. ’(Johnson, 1980 , p68)

The outward symbols and signs of Cathedrals are far in excess of the functional needs of the structure. This is what Frankl calls the ‘margin of freedom’ ‘The actual form to be taken within the ‘margin of freedom’ was not determined by the treasurer, but by the architect. ’(Frankl, 1962 p228). Churches and Cathedrals will obviously be different from other civic buildings due to their specific purposes. There is also the question of a tradition of Cathedral building, of the special signs and signifiers that are loaded into their constructions. At the same time, Cathedrals have a duty to be different. When considered as merely a piece of architecture they instil civic pride and a sense of achievement. They are effective because they give us a sense of history and direction, even if the viewer is not of a religious nature. They are creative outlets for the population.

Regarded purely as a structure, a Cathedral must appeal to the imagination. In cities with great buildings devoted to government, commerce and the arts, a Cathedral inferior to them in size and beauty will fail to achieve one of it’s primary objects, which is to bear witness in unequivocal terms to the place of Religion in the life of man (Cotton, 64, pxv).

Cathedrals give a city a focus, a psychological perspective. Both the Anglicans, and the Catholics of Liverpool wished their Cathedrals to give the impression of antiquity. Whether Romanesque or Gothic, to give the signals of historical perspective. Liverpool is a relatively new city, which in the early 20th century was disparate and would be hungry for a history of its own. Rather like the ‘hyper realities’ of Eco (1986) it is human nature to create a kind of false history. The Anglican Cathedral stamps its identity over the city of Liverpool. Its traditionalist design giving the city its pseudo-history.

If Cathedrals are advertisements, then it follows that the aim of the construction was more than a place to pray and as a creative outlet. They are sites of divine knowledge and beauty, inadvertently constructed to advertise their faith and create a lasting impression of it. Moreover, were Cathedrals built to recruit more people into the cult my extended phenotype theory suggests?

The Cathedral was the education centre for the population, a place for social order rather than academic teaching; yet the wonder and bewilderment that Cathedrals played on to recruit congregations have been reduced with time. Churches and Cathedrals still provoke a sense of uneasy spirituality from their sheer scale and extravagance. Scale is, of course, a great factor, height is used especially. We are left in awe at the patience and dedication of the builders. We find it hard to resist the spiritual pull of these buildings which are designed to unnerve us and question our spirituality. This can be described as the ‘bewilderment factor’ the effect that the building has on the viewer: ‘Someone once said that knowledge is power – It isn’t, bewilderment is’. (Stone, N. (1996), Channel 4)

Although we are still left reeling by the magnificence of the structures before us, we do not feel compelled to worship in the home of God. Cathedrals are now seen as propaganda for a concept that is slowly being engulfed by our culture, and as such they are appreciated for their beauty and naive charm. This implies, in the light of advances in technology for buildings of all purposes, that the ‘bewilderment factor’ has declined. In terms of the meme, the replicators’ methods of seduction have all but disappeared. This is echoed by Dawkins’ ‘hell-fire’ idea. The idea of eternal damnation if you are not of a certain religious creed is pretty irrelevant in our culture.

It is true that Religion does not need a place of worship to survive, but in England the Anglican and Catholic churches have a great tradition of large centres, which control the surrounding area. In the middle ages churches were centres of spiritual and everyday life. They served as an educational stronghold; having the monopoly on money, knowledge and power which encouraged the comparative luxury of the church shrine, acting as a metaphoric magnet. Once inside, the great vaults fill the patron with an immense feeling of insignificance, as do the crafted designs of gold and shining stained glass. The inclusion of bells in most churches is also a constant auditory reminder of a faith that is wholly engrained within our culture.

If we consider Cathedrals as advertisements for their faith, it is a small step towards introducing the concept of competition. When investigating Liverpool’s twin Cathedrals and the ideas of competition, we see that the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King ‘not only invites, but loudly insists on being compared with its Anglican neighbour’. (Johnson, 1980, p271). The Catholics response to the building of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral was to erect a much larger Cathedral, also looking back to the past greatness, mostly of Italy and the Renaissance. ‘When the Catholics of Liverpool saw Scott’s noble Cathedral begin to arise, they were filled with a spirit of emulation, and in 1930 they entrusted the task of building a Cathedral to Sir Edwin Lutyen, the undisputed head of his profession. ’ (Johnson, 1980, p269). My investigation into the Cathedrals is as much to do with Lutyen’s design as Gibberd’s. Lutyen’s plan was larger and more ambitious than Scott’s. Both looked to the past, creating a pseudo history for the city; the gothic styling of the Anglican verses the Romanesque of the Catholic, visibly fighting it out on the skyline of Liverpool. Both Cathedrals are outward signs of the Scouse sense of occasion and flamboyancy as well as a symbol of the sectarianism within the city.

This is the face of the struggles of Liverpool, which more than most has had to deal with racial and religious problems from the start of the industrial revolution. The Catholics ran out of money to build their great Cathedral, and scaled down their efforts to Adrian Gilbert Scott’s design. The later design by Sir Frederick Gibberd was considered by the diocese as ‘A Cathedral in our time’. An attempt, with limited time and funds to create a spectacular effect. The Diocese knew that they could not equal Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece in terms of grandeur and size, but they could create a striking counterpart to it.

As stated at the start of this Section, Cathedrals are signs of the city in which they occupy, of their function, and of their religious creed. Liverpool’s Cathedrals compete for the identity of the city (if you like, to be the one postcard image that people take away as the symbol of Liverpool), and they compete because they are of a different Religion. Basically they are fighting for the command of the city – on different levels (religious, aesthetic, symbolically). The idea of competition between two rival Religions is one that fits in with my interpretation of Richard Dawkins’ theory of the extended phenotype – the concept of rival ideas ‘outdoing’ each other by use of their ‘replicators’.


We have, in Section two, established Cathedrals as advertisements of their faith in the context of the city. We have also introduced the concept of competition, using Liverpool’s Cathedrals as an example. Now I wish to examine the concepts of Richard Dawkins’ meme theory. My interpretation of Richard Dawkins’ theory of the extended phenotype implies:
That Religion is an idea that is capable of replicating itself – ensuring the survival of the idea [meme].
It is able to do this with the aid of artefacts – objects that advertise the idea [replicators].
The artefacts that the idea uses can conceivably tell us about the condition of the idea at the time, just as phenotypes may tell us about the state of evolution of a species.
Cathedrals are one of the chief replicators, or methods of upholding the tradition, for the Christian Religion.

Why should we consider Religion as a meme?

When considering Religion as a meme, we must first examine why we should involve the schools of genetics with culturalism. The first difficulty is the problem of the word evolution.

We can foresee that the birth of an idea (for example Christianity), invented by a small group and then spread to a larger group, can be said to behave in an evolutionary way. There are certain analogies with the progression of genes through generations. In the early stages changes are fairly commonplace, due to discussions within the group and personal opinion. As the idea grows in popularity, the possessors of the knowledge are more numerate, and the Religion is made more permanent, the evolution of the idea becomes slower (this is apart from the splinter groups, which create a diffusion of ideas).

This is an analogy for species evolution. We see the diagram of branches is similar to that of Darwinist species selection. Mutations are more commonplace at an early stage in the development of an organism, due to the similarity of the genes (incest). This speeds up the evolutionary progression by natural selection and makes the organism ‘fitter’ in the Darwinian sense. As the organism evolves and becomes more specialised, the rate of evolution change becomes more stable.

The problem with my Religion model is thus: just because something can be said to evolve, does it therefore follow some sort of Darwinist principle? The extended phenotype theory relates to the objects that directly influence an organism or organisms. The evolution of these objects can be studied as part of the genetic evolution, and presumably as entities in their own right. Studying, say, the evolution of beaver dams would be fairly unrewarding unless the context of the evolution of beavers is observed. Carrying this to its logical conclusion, the study of Religion at a given time would tell us about the state of the evolution of our species. In this context, however, we would be better to talk of the evolution of human culture rather than biological evolution. The theory of the meme has been introduced because it deals with cultural evolution.

A meme, in essence, is merely a phenotype of the gene in an advanced form. The meme is only visible as microscopic thought patterns, and is just an arrangement of such information in the brain (the brain being the vehicle). A meme is only visible by it’s effects.


The purpose of all living creatures, according to Dawkins, is to perpetuate their genes. Living forms in all their diversity are merely survival machines to propagate DNA. His world of the selfish gene seems ever more remote from a caring God than that of the random fluctuations of quantum physics. ‘So long as DNA is passed on,’ he writes, ‘it does not matter who or what gets hurt in the process. Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything. ’(Redfern, 1995, Independent: Science).

The main problem for Darwinism, since its conception, is that just as a religious zealot cannot explain how evil was brought into the world, natural selection can not explain how goodness (or altruism) was brought about. The theory of the extended phenotype states that ‘An animals behaviour tends to maximise the survival of the genes ‘for’ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing the behaviour’ (Dawkins, 1982, p248). Therefore, Dawkins suggests ‘That the individual performing the behaviour is not the entity for who whose benefit the behaviour is an adaptation. Adaptations benefit the genetic replicators responsible for them, and only incidentally the individual organisms involved. ’(Dawkins, 1982, p249). In other words, adaptations benefit genes or memes rather than organisms.

We may define the act of worship as the first criteria for a Religion. This involves the setting up of rules, i. e. how the God(s) should be worshipped. The notion of rules, for whatever purpose, within a society, is one way around the selfish gene principle; the community that is organised will survive better than the community that is disorganised and Religion is one of the best methods to instil rules to the populace. A Religion, as well as laying down rules on everyday life, worship and social behaviour, will also supply the population with explanation, therefore creating a stable social system.

‘The purpose of a myth is to overcome a contradiction’ (Flem-Ath, 1995). This last point implies the human nature of curiosity matched with the genetic need for the stability of a population; either way the use of a Religion is beneficial to the population. On the other hand, there is a cost to the stability of a population via religious belief. The act of worship is detrimental to the well being because time could be spent doing other things (e. g. getting food for survival). This is Dawkins’ idea of the ‘extended arms’: the psychological appeal of Religion because it creates stability and a sense of belonging.

If Religion does evolve, and influences the social structure of the population, what then, is the unit of replication – the gene or the meme? Does the population (the gene-pool) cause a religious phenotype that is manipulated to create order? Or if the Religion is considered the replicator, then the society must adapt to it, and therefore it is the meme that is selfish. If there existed an unexplained phenomena the society may envelop around the religious concept. It is my opinion that this is a chicken and the egg situation (which came first?) that is probably not solvable. The concepts are complimentary to each other. In other words, the spark of a religious idea must be created before a Religion can develop to be manipulated by either the meme or the gene. If there was an ‘unexplained contradiction’, then does the gene pool create a stabilising explanation, or does the meme that is Religion merely appear? This question could be put as simply as ‘What started Religion?’ I am obviously not prepared to answer this. It is like asking whether God exists or not. Dawkins merely states that ‘We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed.’(Dawkins, 1979/89, p192)

If Religion is a meme, then this assumes that memes can be considered at all as known entities. On this point, I will leave that up to Dawkins, and his contemporaries; however, I will say that I believe the theory to be worthy of exploration. Mathematical models are only guides to point in the right direction, any experiment must start with a hypothesis to prove or disprove. This, in essence, is what I have achieved in my study. At the risk of a grave contradiction, memes are just an aid to understanding. Just as genes can not easily be examined or translated, therefore are only visible by its affects on the vehicle, and their phenotypes, memes can only be observed by their cultural effects. This is not a proof of the existence or non-existence of memes, but my personal opinion that it does not (at least in this study) really matter whether memes exist or not.

If we agree that Religion could be considered as a meme (an idea capable of its own replication), then it is fairly easy to define the artefacts associated with that Religion. This is echoed in the definition of Christianity by Encylcopaedia Britannica (p251):

As a tradition, Christianity is more than a system of religious belief. It also has generated a culture, a set of ideas and ways of life, practices and artefacts that have been handed down from generation to generation through the twenty centuries since Jesus first became the object of faith. Christianity is thus both a living tradition of faith and the culture that the faith leaves behind as a kind of deposit.

Moreover, once recognising these artefacts, it is easy to see how they will further the aims of the Religion. For example, the writing of sacred texts will not only stabilise the Religion, but invite a wider audience. Works of art will also influence the greater population, by illustrating certain scenes and bringing home their meaning (e.g. the Crucifixion of Christ). The adornment of these objects will give more appeal to the masses. This is especially noticeable in Churches and Cathedrals, where the greater the feeling of insignificance, and the greater the impression of a higher “power”, the more effective the building is as a replicator.

When, around 1400, the Canons of Seville decided to create the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, they recorded: “We shall build on such a scale that the world will account us madmen.” (Johnson, 1980, p68). The Canons were using the same tactics that all Cathedral builders use; the idea of creating a house of God on earth. Of unnerving the viewer so much with not only size, wealth, knowledge and beauty, but with the level of faith required for such an endeavour. Cathedrals use this factor to advertise their Religion and to engrain the idea of Christianity within civic life by making themselves the focal point of a community.

Once we have presented the idea of the meme, which is ‘analogous’ to the gene, we may introduce Charles Darwin’s concept of Survival of the fittest. This implies that the Religious meme ‘competes’ in terms of its replicators, or systems of replicators. The meme, or concept with the best system of replicators will survive the longest. I repeat Dawkins’ quote:

‘When you look at cultural evolution from the memetic perspective you appreciate that the persistence of an idea in our culture may not be dependent on its value to us, because it may have its own independent way of encourageing its replication. The memes that survive are the ones that make lots of copies; they may not necessarily be good for us’ (Richard Dawkins quoted by Schrage 1995, p54).

If this is true, then we can see that Cathedrals are the advertisements of different Religions. They also compete in a pseudo-competition on behalf of their Religions. If we consider Liverpool’s Cathedrals (Anglican Cathedral and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King), which we have already stated compete in terms of advertising, then the memes are The Roman Catholic Religion, and the Church of England, respectively. The Cathedrals are the replicators for these concepts, built to ensure the survival of the builders’ ideas among the population.

So we see that Liverpool’s Cathedrals compete in a pseudo-Darwinian tug-of-war, vying for the attentions of the community of Liverpool. We can now begin to compare the Cathedrals on memetic, and advertising terms.

4) Comparing Liverpool’s Cathedrals

Liverpool’s influences

‘What makes a great building is something hard to define but it has a lot to do with atmosphere and the nature of the people living in the area. ’(Gilbert, 1996, p6).

Liverpool, during the 18th century, was to see a massive increase in its population, like many industrial towns and cities of the time. With its geographical position on the north west seaboard of the British Isles, Liverpool became one of Britain’s major sea ports which ultimately brought about a complex economic cultural and social history. The fishing village had become a metropolis within a period of forty to fifty years from the early 1800’s, increasing its population some threefold. The Mersey was now straddled by thirty miles of docks.

The influx of immigrant workers to fuel the Industrial Revolution meant the city struggled for roots, despite its wealth. Therefore a tide of ethnic skirmishes developed. Hostility to the British from the mainly Irish, Celtic population continued through several generations and almost certainly contributed to the revolutionary temperament within Liverpool.

Towards the closing stages of the 19th century the situation of the working class within Liverpool deteriorated rapidly; and the sectarian infighting started to give way to the face of socialism. The industrial revolution meant a rapid increase in the production of goods and wealth in society, it also created new forms of mass poverty and degradation where the fortunes made were concentrated in the hands of a minority. The working class began to be nourished by ideas of socialism. Sectarianism gave way to strikes against the capitalists.

At the close of the 19th century, the buildings of the city were monuments to wealth, from the extensive docks to pier head to the municipal centre of St. George’s Hall. The city lacked a Cathedral, despite having resources to create its own province based on Liverpool. A Cathedral would be the way to unite the city through faith, and stamp the identity of Englishness upon a population who saw inspiration from overseas rather than London. The holders of the wealth in the community were those able to fund Cathedral building.

The most important decision taken by the Anglican Cathedral Executive Committee for us is that they chose the Gothic style over any other. The committee and the diocese were trying to apply their identity to Liverpool. To this end an impressive silhouette on St James’ Mount would be required. This, it has been said, was the first stroke of luck that the Cathedral had being, with the exception of Durham, probably the best positioned Cathedral in Britain. Portfolios of drawings were submitted by April 1903, and in June the Executive Committee received the report of the assessors (G. F. Bodley, and R. Norman Shaw). It was said of the winning Architect, Giles Gilbert Scott “that Power combined with beauty which makes a noble and great building’ (Cotton, 64, p3). The Executive Committee probably had a grand, traditional Cathedral in mind, to try and bring a sense of antiquity to the new city of Liverpool. Gothic stands for European Middle Ages rather than the Renaissance that is implied to Romanesque buildings. It is the traditional design of a church which implies antiquity, which could have been what the Committee wanted; a bold statement of age, authority, and permanence in a city that was partially out of control. The use of Gothic may also be a reaction the Catholic abstention from it, as the committee were also concerned about the large immigrant Catholic population within Liverpool. The committee, it has been said, did not set out for the largest church in England, laying down no parameters of size or even style. They did, however, state that 3,000 persons should be able to partake in acts of worship. This statement alone sets out the parameters for the whole building, which would indeed have to be as big as Scott’s design.

The Catholics, in response, began to create Lutyen’s Romanesque counterpart as great as the Anglican. After the Second World War, and the massive inflation that was caused, it was realised that Lutyen’s masterpiece would not be conceivable, and so only the crypt was built. This still exists and is incorporated into Gibberd’s modernist design. The Anglican Cathedral, on the other hand, carried on its construction through the war years and beyond.

The Aesthetic value (religious aesthetic)

The aesthetic value is very hard to define. Just as beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder, but is more than that; aesthetic is more than all the senses because it is so heavily linked with cultural environments. It is something spiritual and deeply personal. However, it is the definition that most applies to Cathedrals as spaces to be interacted with; they are worthy of more than descriptions of their dimensions and decorations. When I speak of the Cathedral aesthetic, I refer to the common visual identity outlined before, as well as the concept of an ‘unearthly’ place. `The idea of a Cathedral is to unnerve and bewilder its audience, and this can be applied to the individual and the collective audience.

Pevsner says of the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King:

Although it’s span is nearly twice as big as the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the greatest church of antiquity, it conveys no impression of space: space, indeed, is not imprisoned but has made its escape up through the spiky lantern. One feels one is in half a collapsed balloon, or a precarious tent; and when the church is full, and various activities are taking place in the centre, the ambience is crowded and restless rather than sacramental. Indeed, the congregation tends to become a mere audience, and intrude on the theatre-in-the-round taking place in their midst, a case of the demons overwhelming the heretic. (1985, p271).

Pevsner is obviously a strong supporter of the ‘classic’ Cathedral aesthetic. He is not in a minority, but others uphold the stark design of Gibberd’s Cathedral. This is the difficulty of judging something as broad as aesthetics. As the populists of science repeatedly point out, ‘beauty’ is a term roughly equivalent to simplicity or clarity, like their Grand Unified Theory, the holy grail of modern physics.

The blurb on the cover of a paperback edition of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene helps to illuminate the difference. It reads, ‘The sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius’. Not bad for a blurb and spot on, as it happens, about one large appeal of popular science – its implicit promise to expand your sense of control in the world, to make you rich in facts. But facts, even theories about facts, work differently in art because they are ultimately answerable to our own emotional proof. Barely anyone reading a popular work about particle physics would be able to put the book down and set off, full of enthusiasm, for their local particle accelerator. But virtually everyone has some access to the raw data of art. (Sutcliffe, 1995, Independent; Arts).

In other words, if works of art are experiments in human perception, they are experiments which finally have to be conducted by each one of us individually and rely on our cultural position. The results will, by definition, vary from occasion to occasion. What’s more, there is no obvious test of the validity of our findings. Art and science may both be ways of understanding the world, but that does not mean they are interchangeable. In fact, it’s likely that a Richard Dawkins of the arts is unlikely. So after excusing my use of aesthetics, and in the absence of any rule on them, I will state my own views and compare the two Cathedrals of Liverpool in regard to their ‘aesthetics’ or ‘cultural values’.

The aesthetic differences of Liverpool’s Cathedrals

The joy and power of the exterior makes up for missed opportunities of the skyline, for Maufe proves once more, in a modern reinterpretation, what medieval Gothic shows again and again, that the grandeur of enclosed space – which is the real essence of Cathedral architecture – does not depend on dimensions but on imagination. (Johnson, 1980, p267).

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral is, of course, widely acknowledged as the last classic Gothic Cathedral, and as such its beauty and majesty are astounding. Gilbert Scott was an architect of power, whether it was of the Church, communication, or of electricity (telephone booths, electricity pylons, and Battersea Power Station were all his works). This sense of strength is echoed through all the details of the building. In the interior, however, the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral is breathtaking in proportions, especially when empty. The ambience when full is also dignified, even on occasions such as Classical Concerts. The fairly poor lighting also adds to the feeling of quiet foreboding; in short the effect is of imposing vigour.

The Catholic Cathedral, on the other hand, seems small when inside. The central Altar, and Lantern does not enclose the space, as in Romanesque and Gothic designs. All the parts of a Cathedral are joined to the central main space, in a kind of modular design. This is more friendly and close than in the Anglican Cathedral. Colour is the key to the building, and a more modern approach to stained glass and ornament gives spectacular results. Whilst some of the more abstract altars within the ‘modular’ Chapels could be excused for being dated and garish, they do convey a kindness, and understanding of light. I have stated that Cathedrals aim to bewilder their audience; the Metropolitan Cathedral’s layout is baffling enough (direction is often a problem), but I find the effect is more simple. The Archbishop of Liverpool wanted ‘a Cathedral in our time’. This is what he was given; and it is because of this that many appreciate the building for what it is. In this respect, however, it does seem to be appreciated as a building of interest, and not as a Cathedral. .

I must admit that the Anglican Cathedral has a very great effect on me – the size, grandeur and knowledge astounds me. It is one of the finest Cathedrals in the world, but yet, I feel there is something missing. The Cathedral is a hyper reality (Eco, 1986), and its sense of history seems almost false. I compare it with the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, which seems out of place, sitting across from its counterpart, but is in fact more honest. In other words, on the outside the Anglican Cathedral has the correct air of grandness, while the Catholic Cathedral seems too unsympathetic – on the inside however, the Catholic Cathedral is a modern interpretation, whilst the Anglican seems to be a new copy of an original. The Anglican Cathedral is trying to set Liverpool in a broader time scale than it really lives. The young Gilbert Scott had gone to Spain for inspiration in the design of his magnificent Cathedral in Liverpool (Brockman, 56, p97) and this is obvious in the meticulous detail, especially in the Reredos; the Cathedral is an interpretation of a medieval Cathedral with modern construction methods. The Cathedrals are separated by sixty years or so, and this is so obvious in the designs and attitudes of the buildings. The arts and craft attitudes of the Anglican are matched by the pre-fabricated 60’s monument of the Catholic.

‘The Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool has not the grandeur of its counterpart. It has little of the majesty which comes with the sense of timelessness, and maturity of the Gothic construction.’ (Johnson, 1980, p271). This, in my opinion, is a falsehood. For me, although the Anglican’s size, beauty and ambition cannot be surpassed, there is something rather rewarding about Gibberd’s Cathedral. One that is not shying away from the issues at stake in our society by hiding themselves in the church’s past success, and attempting to create the ‘bewilderment factor’ without the aid of history. This is relevant to the churches problems in coming to terms with modern society which is echoed by the two great Cathedrals.

Survival Value

I have made use of Richard Dawkins’ theories, and applied them to the Cathedrals of Liverpool. From doing so, I deduced that they could be compared in Darwinian fitness terms. If this is indeed true, then the ultimate criteria for comparison would be the health of the respective Religions in the community – for this, if my theories are to be believed, is the absolute purpose for building the Cathedrals (to continue in the replication of the meme that is Religion). Therefore the amount of people of each Creed (Protestant or Catholic) would be an indicator of the ‘fitness’ of the Religion due to the Cathedrals.

Thus we must examine the relative state of Protestant and Catholic worship within the catchment of Liverpool, and relate it to the respective Cathedrals. We could also examine the use that is made of the Cathedrals and the attitudes of the citizens. This is not easy to do, with changing demographic and religious trends, and the lack of records of Church going within the two Cathedrals.

There is, according to my theory, another way of judging a replicator, and this is linked with the idea of aesthetics. I have mentioned the ‘bewilderment factor’, and this could be defined as the element that Cathedrals use to unnerve us and make us believe in a superior power. Although it is not as effective as examining the state of the Religion itself, this is basically the point that I was interested in in the beginning. Is the foreboding, classical gothic Anglican Cathedral more successful than the forward looking modernist structure of the Catholic Cathedral. Which is more relevant to today? In other words, which replicator, given the changing trends of the ‘market’ is more successful? Which replicator is more effective by placing the idea of a spiritual place in the patrons’ heads?

I am interested in the health of the replicators rather than the memes, even though social trends would tell us more about the success of the Religions, or memes. So we come back to the concept of aesthetics as detailed earlier in the Section, as well as the problems this brings.

Comparing the Cathedrals of Liverpool – Usage

If we apply a Darwinian Survival of the fittest test to Liverpool’s Cathedrals, and if we assume that they are replicators supporting their own Religions, then the state of the Religion, or meme, would be the deciding factor. Thus figures of attendance at both Cathedrals and local churches of either Religion would be necessary. However, it is not this simple; we must define the catchment area for the Cathedrals’ influence, which could be world-wide due to tourists, or could be minimal – the amount of people that the Cathedrals have actually had a part in transforming that persons beliefs? As it stands, there are no figures, even within the Cathedrals themselves, of attendance or of the number of Catholics / Protestants within the City. The Ministers of either Cathedral were reluctant to give out any estimated figures, and merely mention the dwindling congregations in both Cathedrals. There is also the added complication of a changing demographic structure in Liverpool and beyond, and the problem of defining the many strains of Christianity together with the question of active belief (who could be considered as a Roman Catholic or a Protestant).

The usage of the Cathedrals does not tell us the whole story. Liverpool has an incredibly high proportion of churches and these all play a part in the replication of the religious idea. My theory of religious replication is based on a system of replicators – Cathedrals being at the top of the hierarchy. The fact that Liverpool has two Cathedrals and countless Churches is as much to do with the wealth of the city at a time when Churchgoing was the respectable norm (18th century) than anything to do with a power struggle among Religions.

The lack of attendance of congregations in Cathedrals is a national phenomenon. The Cathedrals in Liverpool are fuller for Classical Concerts than they are for worship. The buildings are seen now as a source of civic pride – more of a public space than a place of God. So what does this imply of our replicator theory? As stated in the first Section, we are dealing with the changing needs of the advertising world. Our society does not, generally, feel the need for Orthodox Religions. The meme has failed in its objective to survive, despite some of the best advertisements conceivable to man.

5) Conclusion and evaluation

This paper is an evaluation of not only ‘cultural values’ (aesthetics), but of a theoretical model (The Replicator Theory). It brings together the schools of Design, Religion, and Science: Arguably a volatile mix, and is ambitious to say the least. How do you inflict the arguments of a biologist against the designs of Cathedrals? The conclusion of this dissertation is therefore an evaluation of the theories, and my methods of application.

Do memes exist?

By applying powerful mathematical techniques taken from the theory of games, biologists can explain, for example, why it is in some animals’ interest to display ‘altruism’ towards kin or even unrelated animals, although it might be at the cost of their own lives. Not just the anatomy but the behaviour of animals can now be explained in evolutionary terms. As Richard Dawkins writes in River out of Eden: ‘Never were so many facts explained by so few assumptions.’ (Wilkie, 1995).

I have put forward the opinion that Religion is a meme, and this warrants that memes can be considered at all as known entities. This is outside the scope of this essay but I will say that I believe the theory to be worthy of exploration because it forms a model, or a hypothesis to prove or disprove. Memes are just an aid to understanding. Just as genes can not easily be examined or translated, hence are only visible by its affects on the vehicle and their phenotypes, memes can only be observed by their cultural effects. There is no way of proving that memes exist, and not even Dawkins actually believes that they really do. This is not a proof of the existence or non-existence of memes, but they are a key to our understanding, as thought tools, and of little else. [In this text, they help us to understand the concept of competition and value between two Cathedrals].

Patrick Bateson, professor of ethology (the biological study of behaviour) and Provost of King’s College Cambridge, says: ‘When evolution is applied to social problems, it’s fraught with difficulties. ’ The proponents of the new socio-biology tend to ignore one of humanity’s most distinctive features: culture. Behaviour learnt by one individual can be transmitted down the generations in a manner that is neither Darwinian nor genetic. (Wilkie, 1995, Independent).

Apart from the dangers of taking the new ‘ultra-Darwinism’ too far, there is always the problem of applying mathematical models to social structures, and thus Richard Dawkins is accused of ‘physics envy’ by Niles Eldredge as he tries to reduce everything in the living world to one element: competition to pass one’s genes on to the next generation. ‘Naturalists’ – those who actually go out and observe animals and plants in their natural state regard it as ‘‘mere empty rhetoric” to claim that complex biological systems can be interpreted simply in terms of selfish genes struggling to survive into the next generation.’ (Wilkie, 1995, Independent).

Simon Conway Morris says of Dawkins ‘Atheist perspective of man as a self-replicating robot ruled by genes’ that ‘it tells us nothing about the fundamental mystery of life’. (Wavell, 1997). In his view, memes and such only confuse matters by sending us down the wrong track. So, is the study of extended phenotypes, and for that matter, my idea of Cathedrals as replicators, worthwhile? I see the theories as a mere thought tool, just as the many models taught in Geography lessons at school. These simple notions were utterly impractical in real life, but they gave us a grasp of some of the larger concepts at work. This is what the extended phenotype, and for that matter, scientific theories are about.

Can you value aesthetics?

Brian Eno mentioned: [At the Turner Prize Ceremony of 95] “Science, rightly or wrongly, offers us authority and a sort of certainty…. To put it simply, the best writing on science points towards the right answers; the best writing on art points us towards the right questions.” (Sutcliffe, 1995, Independent).

The question of putting a value on Art, and specifically the design of Cathedrals, was dealt with largely in Section 3. There is no conceivable way of getting a general non-personal aesthetic value, which is why the concept of competition, and usage, was introduced. The above quote, explains the essence of Cathedral aesthetics; bewilderment and questions. The Cathedral art that creates this ‘bewilderment factor’ works the best in terms of the memetic value.


The meme, just like the concept of an aesthetic value, is never open to scientific examination. Therefore the ‘success’ or value of the two Cathedrals can never really be attained. Furthermore, there are far too many socio-economic factors that will have more of an effect than the aesthetics of a building. The success of a Religion can not be attributed solely to the building of a Cathedral, especially in somewhere as diverse as Liverpool. The decline of Religion has been steadily occurring since the birth of science, and this adds to the problems of comparing what I have termed the memetic value, or ‘fitness’ of the Cathedrals of Liverpool.

The purpose of dualism has gone full circle and instead of protecting science from a strong church, it now threatens to marginalise Religion in the face of invincible science. Many scientists seem quite happy with this state of affairs, and the majority of ministers of Religion appear to be happy and continue to preach about a dualistic god of the secondary qualities to their dwindling congregations. But there are some who are not happy with it. They are the people who are buying books on mystical traditions or science books with God in the title. (Redfern, 1995, Independent: Science).

Outside influences rather than the relative status of a Religion seem to have influenced the building of Liverpool’s Cathedrals. ‘What makes a great building. . . has a lot to do with atmosphere and the nature of the people living in the area. ’(Gilbert, 1996, p6). Cathedral building is such a source of civic pride that it becomes something more than an advert for the Religion, and this is where religious concerns go out of the window; this is where the meme theory seems devoid of any humanism, and consequently, is its downfall.


The conclusion to this dissertation should be “Which Cathedral is best suited to the task it is set to do?” However, by introducing such factors as the meme and aesthetics I have found that these qualities are unquantifiable. Therefore, the ‘power’, for that is the real quality of a Cathedral, is also unquantifiable. The real aim of this work, however, is to define Cathedrals as advertisements for their Religion: one of the methods that Religion uses to extend its message to the population, and to keep the ideas of its’ builders at the forefront of civic life.


References and further information

Find out more

The Lost Lutyen Cathedral generates lots of interest in dark corners of the Internet.

For example this team have created a realistic 3D model:


And there is a Reddit thread too:

Edwin Lutyens monolithic Roman Catholic Cathedral that was meant to be built in Liverpool [Building]
byu/Solistine inarchitecture


Original References

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