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Has the concept of 'memes' discredited Christianity?

Geoff Bagley has always believed in God, but was confronted with the need to commit his life to God when he was 15. Since that time, he has always been keen to ensure that he has reasons for his beliefs, and he is particularly persuaded by the fact that the universe cannot be the product of chance and by the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. He has a degree in Zoology and has taught science and religious studies in secondary schools.

Darren was about to enter the classroom for his first lesson at secondary school. During tutor time, his tutor had gone through the timetable, explained the school rules and inspected his uniform and equipment. Darren could now be let loose on the rest of the teachers at the Comp.

Darren had been told that he was now becoming a ‘man’, so he wasn't going to be too concerned about school rules. Rather than be silent as entered F3, he proudly proclaimed to Mr Jones, “I don't believe in God, Sir” and found a place to sit at the back of the room. His first lesson was to be RS - Religious Studies.

Sean followed Darren in and addressed Mr Jones in the same way, “I don't believe in God, Sir.” Sean was to be followed by Ben, Alicia, Sam and twenty others and each time he was greeted by the same words.

Mr Jones, being a skilled and wise teacher, didn't react. He had seen and heard it all before. After taking the register, he wrote the word ‘Atheist’ on the interactive white board. He turned to the class and asked if anyone knew what the word meant. As he expected, no hand shot up or was even half put up, hoping not to be seen.

After a while, Mr Jones spoke to the class: “All of you are atheists. Now, does anyone know what the word means?”

Sam decided to take a risk and tentatively raised her hand. “Is it someone who does not believe in God, Sir?”

“Well done, Sam, for working it out. An atheist is someone who believes there is no God.”

Mr Jones asked the question this way because he believed that there was no one who didn't believe in God or who had no belief. Some believed that there was a God and some believed that there was no God.

“Now, can anyone tell me why they do not have a belief in God?”

The class was silent, until Darren advanced the idea that nobody had seen God, to which Alicia responded: “No one has seen a quark, either.”

Mr Jones made a mental note that Alicia might be gifted and talented.

No more ideas were offered. Perhaps it is not surprising as most eleven year olds would not be able to give a reason or reasons for any of their beliefs, unless it was why they supported the particular football team that they did.

As a Religious Studies teacher of many years, it is my experience that most secondary school students do not believe in God and do not have any well thought-out reasons for their beliefs.

So what could explain why they do not believe in God? One possible answer could be the concept of memes. According to Wikipaedia, a meme: “is any learned feeling, thought or behaviour.” Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods. Memes propagate themselves and can move through a sociological “culture” in a manner similar to the behaviour of a virus. As a unit of cultural evolution, a meme in some ways resembles a biological gene.

The word “meme” is a neologism coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins to describe how one might extend Darwinian principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. He gave as examples tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothing-fashions, and the technology of building arches”[1]

The concept of memes, if correct, can explain why any group of people can take up a piece of clothing, enjoy a particular piece of music or hold a particular belief. Young people make a very good population to study whether the concept of memes is true. Left to themselves the majority will dress the same and a new fashion catches on quickly. They talk the same, often using words in a different way to intended – ‘wicked’ for ‘good' and they have similar beliefs.

Now to introduce the concept of memes, I have used the idea of atheism as something that could be spread through a population. Now this may sound surprising as the meme concept is often used to show how belief in God or other religious ideas have spread through a group. In Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, memes are discussed in the chapter entitled .The Roots of Religion' and Dawkins describes that many aspects about the spread of religion can be described by memes evolving and spreading through a population. [2]

This discussion is neutral as to whether the beliefs of a religion and their spread is a good or a bad thing. However, in the same chapter Dawkins also talks about mental viruses and gullible people - particularly young people being infected with these mental viruses and in the discussion implies that Dawkins is here thinking of religion. The implication is that someone who has a religious belief, it is not because of some rational process but because they have either been infected by a mental virus or meme.

However, not everyone is enamoured by the concepts of memes and a little thought shows that even the ‘concept of memes’ which has certainly spread since Dawkins proposed the idea in 1976, is a meme itself. Also if ideas are spread by memes, this does not itself establish whether the content of the meme is true or not. Other criteria are needed. Another problem with memes is that no one can pinpoint a meme. Even Dawkins recognises this and in his preface to Susan Blackmore's Meme Machine, Dawkins writes:
“Another objection is that we don't know what memes are made of, or where they reside. Memes have not yet found their Watson and Crick; they even lack their Mendel. Whereas genes are to be found in precise locations on chromosomes, memes presumably exist in brains and we have even less chance of seeing one than of seeing a gene...”[3]
This is a very frank and honest admission by someone committed to a materialistic worldview.

The above quote comes from Dr Susan Blackmore, who has been one of the chief proponents of the concept of memes since Dawkins first introduced the idea. She may now be having second thoughts. In an interview despite giving reasons for why memes are a valid concept, she says in response to the question as to the state of memetics today: “I wouldn't say quite at death's door, though it's been there several times.”[4]

She also recognises that if memes are true, its concept is also a meme and not one that is convincing many people. She says: “The meme is not very successful at the moment.”[5]

As mentioned above, if the concept of ‘memes’ is true, that doesn't help us to know whether the content of the meme is true or not. How can we know whether something is true or not? In particular, as some have used the ideas of memes in relation to religious ideas, can we discover whether religious ideas are true or not?

 For Christianity, there is an idea that can explain why Christianity started to flourish 2000 years ago and still does so today. If one goes back to the foundation documents of the Christian church, which can be found in the New Testament section of the Bible, there is one idea that repeats itself and that is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.[6]

The disciple known as ‘Doubting Thomas’ can provide a test case. He was not with the other friends of Jesus who claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection. Thomas was a sceptic and demanded evidence. The evidence may be considered gruesome, but it could prove conclusive. Thomas demanded: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”[7]

Thomas was not going to believe on the basis of a blind leap of faith. Only evidence would be sufficient.

A week later, Thomas saw his evidence. Jesus appeared to the disciples again and invited Thomas to put his fingers into the nail holes in his hands and place his hands into the spot where Jesus' side had been pierced with a spear.[8]

Once Thomas had seen the evidence, he accepted that Jesus had risen from the dead. He now exercised faith; his knowledge of the fact of the resurrection was not just going to be something he could recall for an examination or as testimony in a court of law. This knowledge was going to affect the whole of Thomas' life. He was going to commit himself to Jesus. His initial response was to say, “My Lord and my God!”[9]

This meant that Thomas was not only going to be a follower of Jesus and his teaching, but also accept that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, he could become a friend of God for eternity and also be forgiven for all the wrong in his life.

John, who wrote about the experience of Thomas, shortly afterward gave the reason as to why he wrote about Jesus. He said, “...these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”[10]

Many more examples could be given from the New Testament part of the Bible of people who were prepared to commit themselves to Jesus because they came to believe in the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. But it is sometimes claimed that the Bible was written well after Jesus lived. Couldn't they have been mistaken in their recollections about Jesus?

There are certain things that happen in our lives, that we never forget the detail. Mention 9/11 to someone and they will know what you are talking about and will give detailed descriptions of where they were when they heard that the twin towers fell. Depending on your age, you will probably have no difficulty in remembering what happened on:

31st August 1997 [11]

20th July, 1969 [12]

30th July, 1966 [13]

22nd November, 1963 [14]

7th/8th May, 1945 [15]

At the time of writing, 42 years after the event, I can remember the words of the football commentator as Geoff Hurst scored the final goal of the 1966 World Cup Final: “There are people on the pitch. They think it's all over [Geoff Hurst scores]. It is now!”

For the early disciples, Jesus made a great impact on their lives. His resurrection was life changing and they could not forget what they saw, felt and heard. As John said: “That which was from the beginning [Jesus], which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim...”[16]

We cannot ourselves see or touch Jesus today. We have to rely on the written evidence of others. For most of us this is also true of the events concerning World War 2 or earlier, yet we don't reject their testimony. But as we rely on the written evidence about Jesus, it can still be life changing.

C. S Lewis, the writer of the Narnia stories, is a modern person who found out the truth about Jesus many years after the events. One biography of him explains his conversion thus:
“Lewis had several Christian friends at Oxford, including Hugo Dyson and the Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, with whom he often argued philosophy and religion. A chance remark by another acquaintance, T.D. Weldon, caused Lewis to rethink what he still was calling "the Christian myth": Weldon, known for his cynicism, thought that the evidence for Jesus' life and resurrection was remarkably good. Lewis read the Gospels and was struck by the thought that they did not sound like fiction: the writers seemed too unimaginative to have made the whole thing up; the Gospels read more like reports than stories.”[17]

Obviously, not everyone who claims a religious belief has thought out their position and knows why they believe what they do. For many, they will believe in God because their parents do and they have been brought up to do so as well. The same could be said of someone of an atheist persuasion. However, if we are prepared to do so, there are reasons why we can believe in God. I would say that the most important piece of evidence is the life, death and particularly the resurrection of Jesus.

Use your common sense and reason to check out the evidence and then exercise faith. Not blind faith, but faith as a trust in a God who is prepared to forgive us all our wrongdoing and make us his friends because of what Jesus did when he died and rose from the dead.

End notes


[2] The God Delusion, p224-232

[3] Quoted p128, Alister McGrath, Dawkins God.

[4] The Philosophers' Magazine Issue 39 2007 p73

[5] The Philosophers' Magazine Issue 39 2007 p73

[6] It is often suggested that the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus are not accurate, but scholars have good reason for accepting that they are. If you want o discover more about the reliability of the Bible, get hold of a copy of ‘Misquoting Truth’ by Timothy Paul Jones (IVP, Downers Grove.2007). At one time, Timothy Paul Jones was sceptical about the reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus. Another useful book is ‘The Books the Church suppressed’ by Michael Green (Monarch Books, Oxford, 2005).

[7] John 20:26

[8] John 20:27

[9] John 20:28

[10] John 30:31

[11] Princess Diana died

[12] Moon landing

[13] England win football world cup

[14] President Kennedy assassinated

[15] VE or Victory in Europe day

[16] 1 John 1:1