I’m not talking about the shit you pass around to your friends on Facebook or wherever the fuck you go to be clever. I’m talking about actual memes. Cultural markers that reproduce and either flourish, or fail. Of course, there’s still wide debate about whether a meme is a “thing”, but then again we don’t really know what a “mind” is either, having never observed one. We just know the brain makes one. But some evolutionary biologists think an idea is like a virus, transferable to others with the same chances for successful replication or error that genes have. Dawkins first coined the term in 1976, and there are still adherents to the concept today.
I’m reading some oldish Daniel Dennett at the moment, and as of 2004 he was still a proponent of memetics. It’s as good a theory as any, and not being an educated person in any of the fields studying why ideas and behaviors live and die I will just accept his argument that memes exist and are subject to the rules of nature just as our DNA is. He wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that our evolutionary advantages like speech replicate in a virus-like manner. Mutations can be happy accidents for the carriers of memes and genes, and of course, they can be quite damaging to their hosts if not copied correctly or if an environment is hostile to a change.
Dennett put forth the idea that it was possible to scientifically study the origins of religious ritual. At the time he was writing the book, he had scant ideas on how that could be accomplished-merely asserting that it could and should be examined given how much human activity is inspired by it. But he did believe that some of the strange affectations surrounding worship of a supernatural being were products of evolution. A new folk dance by a trusted holy person that brought rain at the same time the dance was done per se could inspire confidence in a group of humans, and that could be passed on over generations, perhaps with slight variations. Our concepts of God and gods have surely evolved in different places and different times. The war-god in the Old Testament of the Bible is markedly different from the merciful one in the New Testament. Different times and places caused different mutations. Millions of religions over the course of our existence as a species failed having been eliminated by stronger and more cohesive religious memes.
One big question is: is religion escapable, or has the God meme persisted for so long that it’s dug deeper into our brain as something that can be physically expressed? We aren’t going to know any time soon. As far as I know, neuroimaging can’t see a “thought” and I have my doubts it ever will, given that we do know that multiple centers “light up” in the brain for a single activity. But as we know, there is no such thing as pure nature and pure nurture that makes a life form what it is. Handed down tradition also gives us our idea of God. But these don’t have to be permanent memes; memes can be replaced by better ones by simply reading or being taught something more compelling. This could be where free will lies, the ability to resist a stubborn meme and undo its influence on you. The God meme is still there, but your relation to it has changed. You can believe in belief, as Dennett says, but you don’t have to believe.
Well anyway, it is certain that religious memes can bring benefit, or destruction. It could do both at the same time. I think about my brother, who has a terrible image of himself for reasons I can’t always discern, and the Jesus meme makes him feel delivered from his dark urges. The Jesus meme helps my mother, who has had more pain in her life than any one human should. It doesn’t seem to do much for my father, who carries the Jesus meme but it doesn’t deliver him from the need to get attention from young women at the age of 79. He has a “Playboy” meme has hasn’t been able to shake. This, as you may imagine, has made him a target for internet con artists. But he likes to participate in the delusion that women still want him, so whatever.
The point is, it doesn’t really matter what truth actually lies in these memes. The fact is that they, by and large, work. What is truth anyway? It’s a metaphysical concept. There is an objective reality out there, for certain, but we cannot see all of it and really, what good would it do to be able to? The best humanity can do is find paths to a better, richer life. And memes are part of that effort, if they exist. We hew to lies and call them truths if they foster our survival, optimism, and pleasure. Love memes and hate memes accomplish similar things in this vein.
But I feel bad that I cannot de-program my family as the only nonbeliever. I feel really good about being free to not have to worship something or not having to worry about being punished for my actions by an unseen being. It helps me remember that this is the life you get so make it a good one if you can. But my feel-good free-will meme might not be transferable and probably would be super damaging to all members of my family. What might I unleash within my brother, with all that hate and anger suddenly out of check? How could I make my mother happy if I convinced her that she will never see the people she loves again? What kind of a lecher could I turn my father into were he completely free to indulge his tastes in blondes with big tits?
In all these cases, my wish to replicate the atheist meme is a bit stymied, and for good reason. I have given up trying to change these people I love, because they are doing the best that they can and don’t need me to upset their applecarts. The atheist meme in America is a lonely one right now, because it has never really coalesced into a group of people with any actual power. Fortunately, I’m mostly content with the fact that the other three members of my family are nonbelievers. My wife and I never introduced the God meme to our kids and they simply turned out to be atheists. It’s the default natural position, undermining the idea that belief in God has become somewhat hardwired.
Anyway, philosophically I’m back to my old friend Nietzsche, who was the first person to scare the God meme right out of me. Thinking back on some of his other contentions, I remember one was that falsity, artifice and appearance were realer and of more utility than anything “nature” could come up with. Trying to find the nature of reality was a secondary concern to him, which at the time differentiated him from any other major philosopher before him.
We are the creators now. We are the gods, the scientists looking for the paths that help asking no assistance from the sky. We put the memes to work for us, and create new ones. In this sense, the control of the meme is relatively new. We have domesticated their transmission with things like writing, politics and computers. Our lies have become quite sophisticated and as a result, and I wonder sometimes if that is a boon or a curse. Sometimes the “memes from every corner” feeling (a feeling produced a lot by things like advertising) is deleterious to us. It causes conspiracy thinking, a type of destructive memetic that makes you feel like someone is always out to get you and that you need to find “the truth” to escape. But that’s what happens in a free market of ideas. It can be good, but God knows there’s plenty of shit memes to indulge in today no better than the delusions that religion produces.