Perhaps the rise of social media can be traced back to the moment someone suggested emulating a virus would be good thing. Among today’s viral infections, few compete with “memes”—those pairings of photographs with humorous or ironic captions that litter social media sites. Yet as common the “meme” term has become, the idea goes much further back than most people realize.
And it has to do with God.
Famed atheist Richard Dawkins admitted that the naturalistic account of the origin of universe and of life can be a tough sell. In The Blind Watchmaker, he wrote, “It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.”1 Perhaps to help avoid the suspicion that the brain is specifically designed for such a thing, Dawkins formed—from whole cloth—the idea of the meme.
Memes are, the story goes, ideas that stick—catch phrases, fashion trends, slogans, lyrics, and of course, all this silly talk about God. Dawkins came up with the idea in The Selfish Gene to propose a “cultural replicator” that behaves in the self-perpetuating way he claimed genes operate. In fact, he chose the term meme (rhymes with cream) because it calls to mind a derivation Greek word for “imitation” (mimesis)—and it sounds a lot like gene. As genes reproduce by passing from body to body through sexual reproduction, memes reproduce by passing from brain to brain.
In 1976, Dawkins introduced the idea of the meme on page 192 of The Selfish Gene and waited all the way until page 192 to suggest the concept of God must be a meme. (Couldn’t have seen that coming.) Just as genes struggle to survive, he says, so do memes, jumping from brain to brain and infecting as many people as possible. A meme operates just like a “virus”—a term Dawkins has actually used. The God virus is particularly powerful, Dawkins says, because any notion of an afterlife can pretty much automatically produce powerful incentives as well as nasty threats.
Christian theism holds that humanity is embedded with Imago Dei—the image of God—which gives our species an innate spiritual hunger, as well as other attributes such as deep intellectual curiosity and highly developed moral intuition. Dawkins proposed the meme idea as an alternative explanation for the almost universal human impulse toward religion.
The idea of memes suggest three further brief considerations, each almost too obvious to mention. But we should, if only to keep the memes rolling.
First, the whole conceptual structure that surrounds the meme idea says absolutely nothing about whether a particular meme is true, important or even useful. Democracy is a powerful meme that took hold and spread between people over time. But so, apparently, is “that’s what she said” — the punchline to what seems like half the jokes in the English language. Are those two ideas equally valuable? If not, labeling something as a meme may not be an enlightening exercise.
Second, the concept of a meme is itself a meme. So if calling something a meme is an attempt to discount the underlying idea—and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s exactly what it is—then why pay any attention to this meme business in the first place?
Finally, of course, atheism is a meme. It is not a new concept. It is not a recent discovery. It is not scientifically proven. It is an emotionally appealing idea that has taken hold and spread like a virus. So if memes are to be viewed with suspicion, then knock yourself out.
At any rate, as an academic concept, the idea of a meme hasn’t fared well. Dawkins has used the concept liberally in his subsequent books, as has fellow Big Atheist Daniel Dennett, but it’s hard for many other scientists to take the idea seriously. Stephen Jay Gould dismissed it as a “meaningless metaphor.”2 Simon Conway Morris called the idea, “Trivial . . . hopelessly, if not hilariously, simplistic.”3 Noted theologian Alister McGrath wonders why, more than a quarter-century into the age of memetics, the idea has yet to generate a single “productive research program in mainstream cognitive science, sociology, or intellectual history.”4 Have you ever met a practicing memeticist?
What has foundered in academia lives on in social media. The meme has, in ironic self-reference, become a meme—very “meta,” as cool people like to say. It thrives in the flotsam of internet distraction even though it has never taken root in serious research. What has fallen short as a means to explain away religious faith at least has thrived as a way to give people something to do with their cat photos.
PS: Speaking of “meta,” this post was adapted from my book, The God Abduction, but it was inspired by a nice piece on “A View from the Right.” Thanks to Chris Harris for the mention.
1 R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (Norton, New York, ed. 1st ed., 1986), pp. xi.
2 Radio interview, November 11, 1996.
3 M. Conway, S., Life’s solution : inevitable humans in a lonely universe (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.; New York, 2003), pp. 324.
4 A. E. McGrath, Dawkins’ God : genes, memes, and the meaning of life (Blackwell Pub., Malden, MA, 2005), pp. 133-135.