When I first read The God Delusion back in 2011, that was the first time I had ever come across “Meme Theory.” Now, you have probably heard the term “internet meme”: those quirky little snippets on the internet that get hopelessly repeated with minor variations in the message. Well, if you’ve ever wondered, “What the heck does ‘meme’ mean?” you’re in luck. It was a term made up by Richard Dawkins in an attempt to explain human though by purely naturalistic means. Now genes supply the information and building blocks of everything in the natural world.
Dawkins, being an atheist and philosophical natural who is insistent that everything in the universe can be explained by the means of natural selection and evolution, found himself faced with a challenge. If that’s the case, how can that account for human thought and ideas? Let’s face it, genetics and DNA might hold the keys to what eye color you have, but they don’t hold the keys to the thoughts you think and the beliefs you have. You’re not going to find in the genome any gene that says, “Sally is going to be a Los Angeles Lakers fan.” Simply put, there are some things in the world not explained by genes and DNA. Most people are fine with this.
…Dawkins isn’t, though. He is such an ardent crusader for philosophical naturalism, he is determined to explain everything (and I mean everything) by means of evolution and natural selection. This is where his “Meme Theory” comes in.
Is Religion a Product of Evolution?
In chapter 5 of The God Delusion, Dawkins attempts to give a “scientific” explanation regarding the roots of religion. Essentially, he argues that there must be a part of the brain—the ‘god center’—that has developed over time via natural selection. Therefore, this “religious tendency” must have served an evolutionary purpose at one time. Dawkins then wonders, “Why did those of our ancestors who had a genetic tendency to grow a god centre survive to have more grandchildren than rivals who didn’t?” (197).
Let’s stop there for a moment. I don’t think it is too much to say that perhaps Dawkins is assuming a few too many things here: (A) Is there a “religious part of the brain? (B) Is religion really a genetic phenomenon? (C) Were there primal ancestors who had no “religious gene”? (D) Is any of what Dawkins is putting forth even remotely scientific in any way? (Spoiler alert—the answer is “No”). In any case, Dawkins is determined to make his argument.
In order to argue that religious tendencies are simply a by-product of natural selection and genetics, Dawkins tries to compare religious people to moths, whose propensity to “fly to the light,” while no doubt dangerous when it comes to open flames and bug-zappers, still nevertheless serves a purpose in the propagation of the species. Dawkins writes, “On this view, the propensity that was naturally selected in our ancestors was not religion per se; it had some other benefit, and it only incidentally manifests itself as religious behavior. We shall understand religious behavior only after we have renamed it” (202).
Added to this idea is Dawkins’ re-hashing of an old Freudian argument regarding children, but with a twist. Dawkins argues that children’s brains have “a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analogue of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility” (205).
The Santa Claus Argument, and the Virus of Religion
So basically, Dawkins argues that religious ideas really stem a combination of (A) the gullibility of children’s brains and (B) the indoctrination of parents and “tribal leaders” in order to ensure the survival of their family or tribe. It is, what I like to call, the Santa Claus argument: “Be a good boy or Santa won’t bring you gifts.” Convince the dopey child of Santa, and you’ll have him eating his peas, picking up his room, and obeying his parents—after all, it’s good for him. That is why churches start so early with their Sunday Schools—mold and indoctrinate those vulnerable children brains, and you have them hooked for life!
So after putting forth this argument (that is based on his own unscientific assumptions), Dawkins concludes that this is why religion is so sinister. He actually states: “Maybe some children need to be protected from indoctrination by their own parents” (206). And later, “Once infected, the child will grow up and infect the next generation with the same nonsense, whatever it happens to be” (219).
So, according to Dawkins the “thing” that gives rise to religious tendencies is a genetic product of natural selection, but the religious ideas themselves are the equivalent of an infection, a virus, if you will. Therefore, Dawkins “logically” concludes that religious leaders and parents who teach religion to their children are abusing their children. According to Dawkins, teaching religious ideas to children is the equivalent of infecting them with AIDS.
Now, that is quite a serious charge. But I have to ask one basic question: is comparing moths’ attraction to light to religious ideas a valid, scientific comparison? Is there any logical, rational, scientific connection between the two, or is Dawkins just making this stuff up? Is there any kind of scientific, testable hypothesis that can support Dawkins’ claim? The answer is obvious: No there isn’t. Inflammatory and shocking as Dawkins’ comparison of religion with AIDS might be, the argument upon which he bases that assessment is complete and utter unscientific, nonsense.
Now, About Meme Theory…Let the Colonization Begin
Let’s now focus on Dawkins’ Meme Theory itself. Remember, Dawkins believes that everything must be able to be explained in evolutionary terms—not just biological organisms, but everything: culture, ideas, art, music, literature…everything. After all, Dawkins surmises that if human beings are just the products of blind evolutionary forces, than anything that humans produce, feel, or think are equally the products of blind evolutionary forces. Therefore, Dawkins’ meme theory is his attempt to “scientifically” explain human culture in evolutionary terms. Here’s what it looks like.
According to Dawkins, everything in culture, any bit of information that gets passed on from person to person, from songs and art to philosophical and theological ideas are “memes,” and “memes” are essentially cultural genes—and they compete for survival. Therefore, “Let it Be” by the Beatles is a “meme”—and in order to survive, it has to get people to listen to it and pass it along to other people. It has to compete with other “music memes” like “Baby, Baby” by Justin Beiber and “Claire de Lune” by Claude Debussy. By the same token, Christianity is a “religious meme”—and in order to survive, it has to get people to believe it and then pass its teachings to others. That means it has to compete with other theological/philosophical systems like Buddhism, Islam, Epicureanism, atheism, and countless others.
The point of all this is simple. Meme Theory states that you don’t choose to like “Let it Be” as opposed to “Baby, Baby;” and you don’t choose to become a Christian as opposed to a Buddhist. No…The “Let it Be” meme chooses you, and the Christian meme chooses you, to colonize your brain and replicate within your brain.
That’s right. You might think that you have chosen to become a Republican, Christian, NRA member who likes classic rock, opera, and “The Muppet Show,” but in reality (according to Dawkins’ Meme Theory) the Republican meme, Christian meme, NRA meme, classic rock meme, opera meme, and Muppet Show meme have all simply taken up residency within the gray matter within your skull, and you are nothing more than a host, a carrier, and transmitter of these memes as they struggle to survive.
What this means is that if Meme Theory is true, then that means that you don’t really exist—there is no free will, there is no individuality, there is no real personhood. What you think is “you” is really just a bunch of matter being controlled and colonized by essentially parasitic memes. In fact, if Meme Theory is true, not only did I not choose to become a Christian, but Richard Dawkins did not choose to become an atheist. Furthermore, if Meme Theory is true, then there is no real way to determine whether or not Christianity or atheism is, in fact, true. For that matter, there simply is no way of knowing if anything is true or false—for there is no “you” or “I” conscious self to observe the world, to rationally analyze it, and to discover truth about it in the first place. Simply put, if Meme Theory is true, then there is no way of determining if anything is real, meaningful, or true. The very concept of “truth” is rendered meaningless. And if that’s the case, then how can “we” (who don’t really exist) ever know that Meme Theory is “true”? (“What is truth?” says Pilate…or plates…or Pilates…who knows what’s what?)
That’s Meme Theory in a nutshell. In his attempt to make up a fictitious theory as a means to discredit religion, Dawkins has put forth the suggestion, if taken to its logical conclusion, completely obliterates human dignity, and any sense of purpose, meaning, or truth. It took all of one paragraph to show its absurdity, and we haven’t even gotten to how Dawkins attempts to use his unscientific theory of his fictitious memes to religious idea. That will have to wait until next time.