Memes is the theory extended by some of the nu-atheists to explain how what they see as patently irrational beliefs like Christianity (as well as day to day tedious things like fashion and catchphrases and the like) get spread around. They are mind viruses, ideas that become contagious because they are attractive or serve some sort of a purpose for us. This is one of the most crazy ideas doing the rounds today although the uber-“rationalist” himself, Richard Dawkins quotes N.K. Humphrey in writing:

Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.

So mind viruses that are invisible to all scientific detection are responsible for the propagation of the religious beliefs that Dawkins claims are “delusional”.

The typical rebuff that philosophers have given to this fairytale beyond outright scoffing has been the impeccable and perfectly poised rejoinder that Alister McGrath (alarmingly, Amazon list that book by one of the premier systematic theologians at work today under “Other Religious & Spiritual Practices > Scientology”) has offered: the belief in memes is memetic. If Christianity is spread because of memes, and therefore should be distrusted because its cause is in fact memes, then memes themselves fall at this test. It is not sufficient to say that it is a fairytale. It is a self referential fairytale.

But in Absence of Mind, a beautiful book, as one would expect from Marilynne Robinson, we read of a new response. If, as nu-atheism assures us, the brain operates on an evolutionary basis that drives our personal beliefs forward for genetic replication reasons (under the hood, so to speak, we do good or believe in democracy or paint not for the reasons we might believe “on top” but for the function of genetic succession in a future generation) then memes pose a real problem.

If it is true that memes, these convincing mind viruses, motivate behaviour then that is a directly contradictory explanation to the “natural selection is a universal solvent” argument that much of nu-atheism espouses. They can’t have it both ways. Either we are driven to (very real) war and (apparent) altruism and (apparent) love of family by genetic urges or by memes, but not both:

Why war? Dulce et decorum est. Why altruism? It is more blessed to give than to receive. Whence the bonds of family? I love all the dear silver that shines in her hair, and the brow that is wrinkled and furrowed with care.

Your Correspondent, Convinced anything that isn’t simple must be irrelevant