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Wednesday, July 26, 2006
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HEY DAWKINS, THANKS FOR THE MEMES: I saw an article in the NY Times about Richard Dawkins’ soon to be released book “The God Delusion”. You might remember Dawkins for his concept of the “meme”. He explains it in his earlier book “The Selfish Gene”. Basically, a “meme” is something like a social version of a human gene. Instead of being an actual strand of molecules that determines our physical features, such as a DNA gene is, a “meme” is a social idea that helps to determine our mental features, e.g. our beliefs, our wants, our cultural tastes, our sense of humor, etc. A “meme” starts out with one person or a small group of people who think up something clever; or at least they find it clever. It can be a joke, a song, a poem, an ad jingle, a magazine article, an opinion, an idea about parenting, a positive or negative review of a restaurant, etc. This “clever thing” can be about big ideas (e.g., Plato’s theory of the forms) or about little stuff (an opinion about a certain kind of mouthwash).

A meme starts out with one or two people, but it soon gets passed on to other people (word of mouth, publication, paid advertisement, etc.). And that’s where it gets put to the test. Just as a species of flora or fauna is tested by the environment it faces, a meme competes for people’s attention. If a lot of people find the “meme” useful or interesting or edifying, it gets passed on. If not, it dies out quickly (or has but a brief season in the sun, like hula hoops and mood rings did). So, the “meme” goes through a Darwinian evolutionary process, where it’s the survival of the fittest (or most popular).

Personally, I’ve had a lot of meme ideas, and they’ve all bombed out. I just can’t seem to “touch the nerve” of the public. (The blogosphere is a good example of a competitive “meme” environment. A handful of blogs — even some non-pornographic ones — get thousands of hits each day. And yet many, like mine, are lucky to get a handful a week. They just never catch on.)

Anyway, Dawkins obviously has some opinions about religion’s status as a meme (or more accurately, as a “memeplex”, a complex system of inter-related memes). I haven’t read his new book yet, but according to the reviews and his other writings and interviews, Dawkins feels that religious faith is a bad meme, something like a gene that causes cancer. According to the Times article, Dawkins feels that God and religion are evolutionary defects that will eventually be eliminated as humankind progresses. In fact, he says that this is already happening in one place — western Europe. He seems quite enthusiastic about this brave new Euroworld.

The idea of God is indeed a meme (or memeplex). It seems to me that it’s a meme that has done pretty well over the centuries, survival-wise. And as with living creatures, you can argue that the idea of God has evolved so as to get better and more intelligent every so many centuries. It took quite a while for a kinder and gentler God, a wiser and unified God to emerge from the many concepts of spirits and multiple gods that have been bandied about across the many cultures of the world over the past — what? — three thousand years? As to religions, admittedly, they still have a long ways to go. Some of them are still quite crude, and all of them are very crude in certain ways. Dawkins spends a lot of time in his book outlining this. As with Dawkins, none of the religions inspire me to get up early on a Sunday morning. But I have faith that some day, we may see the evolution of a better religion, one with greater wisdom, one that makes its peace with science and individuality. That is, if the world doesn’t blow itself back into the Stone Age (through science and individuality).

I obviously see God and religion as being similar to imperfect living creatures that are, in fact, slowly improving over time through evolutionary processes, i.e. by responding to varying environmental challenges. As with most creatures, they can sometimes be dangerous to intelligent life, although they are more often beneficial. Dawkins and a variety of other modern thinkers (most notoriously philosopher Daniel Dennett) find religion to be an unfortunate and pernicious “memenic” accident, something like a deadly virus. Obviously, they feel it has little to offer to the cause of intelligent enlightenment, and much to harm it.

Well, Mr. Dawkins. If the memes of God and religion are like harmful microbes, they certainly have infected a large swath of humanity. And they have done so for a long, long time. How many biological diseases or pathological conditions can you compare that with? Despite continued belief in God and participation in religion, humankind continues to develop such things as human rights, democracy, critical thinking, artistic culture, philosophy, science and technology. In some cases, religion (or a certain form of it) even assisted the emergence of these things.

And as to western Europe — their secular orientation is something relatively new, something that developed over the past 40 years or so. And just what has western Europe contributed, “meme-wise”, to the human condition during this time? Well, let’s consider some things: Techno-trance; Europop; Spaghetti Funk; Abba. Well OK, the Scorpions, admittedly; but also Eiffel 65 and Turbo-Folk. If that is what the future of culture is going to be like once secularism reigns supreme, then give me that old-tyme religion!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:11 pm      
 
 


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