Religion and Memetics
Evolutionary theory has revolutionised modern thought. The way that we understand the world has been profoundly influenced by Darwin’s insight into the way that natural selection guides progress over time. Recently, it has been recognised that Darwin’s theory applies not only to biological organisms but also to ideas. Some, such as Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore, and Daniel Dennett, have argued that this provides an explanation of religious belief, and that this explanation counts against the idea that such beliefs are true.
The Theory of Evolution
Darwin’s theory of evolution sought to explain the diversity of species in the world in the following way:
The world contains only a limited supply of the resources necessary to support life. Organisms must therefore compete with each other for these resources in order to survive.
As biological organisms reproduce, random genetic mutations occur, introducing variety into the species. Because of these mutations, some members of the species are better able to compete for resources, i.e. fitter, than others.
The result of this natural selection is the survival of the fittest. As the competition is won or lost, weaker members of the species will die out, without reproducing, and their genes will be lost to the gene pool. Stronger members, on the other hand will survive, and their fitter genes will be replicated.
The process will then repeat, with mutations again introducing new genetic variety, and natural selection again choosing the fittest members of the species to survive and reproduce.
There are thus two stages to evolution: mutation, which introduces variety into a species, and natural selection, which chooses between the members of the species, driving progress by ensuring that only the fittest members survive and reproduce.
With each iteration of the process of natural selection, the gene pool becomes stronger; species develop on an upward trajectory. Given enough time, evolution theory holds, this upward trajectory can take a species far; indeed, we ourselves are thought to have evolved from single-celled organisms via this process.
Evolution and Ideas: Memetics
Recently, it has been recognised that this theory can be applied not only to biological organisms, but also to ideas. Ideas, too, replicate themselves, passing from one individual to another, changing over time. Ideas, too, compete for survival in the minds of the people of the time; an idea that is rejected altogether dies out.
Just as the fittest organisms will survive and reproduce, then, so too will the fittest ideas. Ideas that replicate themselves in this way have been called memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene; the study of this process is called memetics.
What makes for fitness in ideas will be similar to what makes for fitness in genes. The ability to replicate itself is important if either a gene or an idea is to spread; the greater this ability the better. The ability to survive is also vital if the gene or idea is not to be wiped out before it reproduces.
One thing that need not be involved in the fitness of an idea is truth. An idea may replicate itself widely and be extremely robust without corresponding to reality.
The Fitness of the Christian Meme
Christianity does indeed possess those features that are necessary for an idea to compete for survival effectively.
Christianity is very good at replicating itself; the great commission, Jesus‘ instruction to his followers, is to go and make disciples of all nations. Those who possess the Christian meme, who believe in the God of the Bible, therefore replicate Christianity as far as they are able to do so.
Christianity is also very robust. The all too common emphasis of religion on faith to the exclusion of reason makes those that possess the Christian meme liable to reject evidence against it. Christianity has even been accused by Antony Flew in his paper “Theology and Falsification” of being unfalsifiable, i.e. of being such that no evidence could possibly count against it. Those that possess the Christian meme are therefore unlikely to lose it.
The Memetic Critique of Christianity
None of this memetic critique of Christianity, of course, proves that Christianity is false; that is not what it attempts to do. Rather, what the memetic critique of Christianity attempts to do is demonstrate that even if Christianity were false, we would expect belief in it to be widespread. Atheism, the argument goes, can explain Christianity; there is nothing mysterious about the success of religion.