Thursday, June 2, 2011

Christianity as a Meme

"Yo dawg, I herd you like DNA, so I
put DNA in your DNA so you can
replicate while you replicate."
OK, no more internet memes now.
Any idea or fact can be thought of as a meme: a unit of information that can be transferred from one mind to another. Like living organisms, memes can self-replicate (by transferring to other minds), mutate (by modifying the idea), and undergo natural selection (since memes that self-replicate well survive, while others die out). Memes are often compared to viruses, but this doesn't imply that they're false or in any way bad. However, a well-adapted meme will spread easily through a population regardless of whether or not it's true.

Religions often have many of the traits associated with extremely powerful memes, and Christianity is no exception. Below I'll explain what these traits are, and provide Bible references to show how they're encouraged within Christianity. I'll start with "vertical" meme transmission—from parent to child. Memes will of course spread better if parents produce more offspring for those memes to transfer to. And here's what Genesis 1:28 says:
"And God said to them [Adam and Eve], 'Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it."
Many Christians have taken this to heart and produced more offspring than they would have otherwise. An extreme example is the Quiverfull movement, in which having many children is strongly encouraged. Then there's the ability of parents to pass memes on to their children. Christianity is as good at this as any religion out there. Here's Proverbs 22:6:
"Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it."
There's nothing wrong with this sentiment per se, but within Christianity, "the way he should go" is always going to be Christianity. In fact, this was my school's Bible verse of the year in sixth grade. And it's almost always true that children "will not depart from" the religion they've been taught; I'm the exception rather than the rule.

Next up are the "horizontal" aspects of meme transmission—that is, from person to person outside of parent-child relationships. Proselytizing is an integral part of many branches of Christianity. Here's Jesus' Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you."
The Great Commission encapsulates horizontal meme transmission perfectly, and it takes a salient position at the end of both Matthew and Mark. And because it's such a prominent part of the worldview, missionaries are compelled to travel all over the world converting people to Christianity. Even my sister recently shared the gospel with strangers in our area as part of a school project.

Another horizontal trait is the ability to suppress other competing memes. There are plenty of extreme examples in the Old Testament in which the Israelites massacred unbelieving nations. Deuteronomy 20:17-18 provides a good summary:
"You shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God."
Of course Christians don't perform similar slaughters in modern times, but there are plenty of other historical examples, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. And in Galatians 1:8, Paul expresses a highly diluted version of the same general sentiment:
"But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed."
Here Paul takes the groupthink, us-versus-them mentality to incredible extremes: absolutely any idea that doesn't fit with established dogma is to be shunned, and even the most trustworthy sources become "accursed."

An effective meme should also give people strong motivations for adopting the beliefs in question. And what motivations could possibly be more powerful than the promise of eternal salvation and the threat of eternal damnation? This is Romans 6:23, a verse that Christians regularly use when trying to convert people:
"For the wages of sin is death [i.e. hell], but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
It's hard to pass up a gift like that. Christianity is so deeply imbued with incentives that even I, as an atheist, occasionally feel drawn to it. Even though I know full well how unlikely it is that Christianity is true, the speck of possibility that I could be tortured forever is enough to send a chill down my spine and make me think, "Maybe I should look at this one more time, just to be sure." The pure, raw psychological power this meme wields is downright unfair; it games the system by playing with infinities.

Going hand in hand with this is the characteristic of giving the meme carriers a desire to continue holding that meme as long as possible. The Bible continually emphasizes perseverance in belief as a great virtue. Here are Proverbs 3:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 15:58:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths."
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord."
With a mentality like that, how could a sincere believer possibly be persuaded away from their position? The only way to even begin questioning the Christian worldview is to "lean on your own understanding." By cordoning off rational inquiry, the meme's fate is completely secure.

Finally, there's the one trait I don't have a verse for: cultural pervasiveness. While this didn't apply to early Christianity in the Roman Empire, it certainly applies to modern-day America. About 78% of Americans are Christians. Countless biblical phrases crop up in everyday language: "Pearls before swine," "my cross to bear," "an eye for an eye," "faith can move mountains." Even many of our names come from the Bible: My first and middle names are Timothy Joseph, and there are even people named Jesus and Christian. But most importantly, the Christian message of redemption and salvation is ubiquitous in western culture (the Christ figure character trope is a good example). Thus, the meme makes more sense to us and can keep its stranglehold far better than if we were being presented with it anew.

I should emphasize again that Christianity's extraordinary capacity for self-replication does not in itself imply that Christianity is false. However, it does offer a perfectly adequate explanation for why so many people believe in it, even in the face of strong evidence. In contrast, all religious people can offer as to why atheists don't believe are unsupported accusations of denial and rebellion against God. The belief we observe in the world makes sense whether or not those beliefs are true. But for the unbelief we see, the best explanation is that despite all the protests to the contrary, we really don't have sufficient evidence for God.

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