A few days ago I took the opportunity afforded by an enforced period of inactivity (a seven hour train journey) to listen to a podcast that I’ve had on my ‘must listen’ list for some time. It was of a debate at the Royal Institution in London between philosopher Daniel C Dennett and professor of theology (and ex-atheist) Alister McGrath. The debate was about the contents of Dennett’s book ‘Breaking The Spell” – an exploration of the reasons that religion arose as explored from a non-religious standpoint. Dennett was arguing in favour of his book’s conclusions, naturally, while McGrath was against them.
The actual event took place on March 13th 2006, which was some time ago, but bearing in mind that the truths of religion are supposedly eternal the time lag between the event and this article is arguably irrelevant.
I only want to mention one point about the debate here.
If my memory serves me correctly, McGrath’s defense of religion was largely based on the fact that Dennett’s book postulated that the concept of religion was a ‘meme’ (I’ll explain what a meme is in a second). McGrath’s direction of attack was to question the concept of memes, and thus to undermine the foundations of Dennett’s argument.
What’s a meme? (If you already know, skip the next few paragraphs.)
The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976.
A meme (rhymes with seem) is a form of ‘thought package’ that resides in a person’s brain and that has the ability to replicate itself by entering other people’s brains. At first sight this idea sounds a bit like the plot of a corny science fiction novel about mind parasites, but when it’s pointed out that the memes enter other people’s brains simply through normal everyday interactions such as conversation it doesn’t seem so weird. (So, for instance, if you’d never heard of memes before reading this, you now know about them, so the concept of memes has entered your head and has installed itself in your brain as a ‘thought package’ in exactly the way that I’ve just described. You’ve just had a meme implant itself.)
Memes don’t necessarily have to be ideas – they can be anything such as actions or attitudes that lodge in your brain after being transmitted from another person (so, for instance, the action of putting milk into a cup of tea before the tea is a meme, while putting the milk in after the tea is another meme. Most people only have one of these memes – or neither). A crucial factor about memes is that the contents of memes aren’t necessarily good or correct in themselves, it’s simply that they are capable of replicating themselves and spreading from brain to brain (Such as with the pair of memes that dictate at which point milk should be put into tea. Another good example of a useless meme would be a particularly catchy and infuriating popular tune that you can’t get out of your head,).
I’ll write more about memes later, but for now suffice to say that they are ‘just a theory’.
Back to the Dennett-McGrath debate.
As I mentioned earlier, Alister McGrath’s defense of religion seemed to hinge on the fact that Dennett’s attack on religion was based on the proposition that religion is a meme: i.e. that religion is nothing more than a ‘thought package’ that is implanted in people’s brains regardless of any rightness of wrongness of the thoughts involved.
McGrath’s point was that memes are nothing more than a concept – that there’s no proof of their existence – that they are ‘just a theory’. Therefore, because memes probably don’t exist, religion probably isn’t a meme.
(I got the impression that he was implying that because religion isn’t a meme, which is a thought package that has no intrinsic qualities other than the ability to replicate from brain to brain, then it must be the opposite – that is, a real thing that has a true value and that spreads because of its rightness. However, that’s by the by.)
What I found really fascinating about the debate was that McGrath felt comfortable deploying the ‘Where’s the proof?” strategy in his attack on the theory of memes. Surely he, as a person of faith, should be amongst the last to use a tactic that he’d dismiss out of hand when aimed at his own beliefs.